Shelter in the Sunshine City

St. Petersburg, Florida is like most urban cities in America. We are progressive and diverse, with minorities making up about one third of our population. In St. Pete, we don’t just tolerate diversity — we celebrate it. This month, our African-American history museum’s flag flies high above our City Hall. In June, we will again host one of the largest pride parades in the nation, as well as our first-ever Iftar dinner in celebration of our Muslim community. Our city’s vision statement says, in part, that we will be “a city of opportunity where the sun shines on all who come to live, work, and play.”

Because our vision and values are informed by America’s core values, residents here are especially sensitive to the immigration policies and ideas emanating from the Trump Administration. Muslim leaders have told me that their community is fearful, while residents from all backgrounds have implored me to deem St. Petersburg a ‘Sanctuary City.’ While our county sheriff’s office is ultimately responsible for notifying the federal government about individuals who are here illegally, I have no hesitation in declaring St. Petersburg a sanctuary from harmful federal immigration laws. We will not expend resources to help enforce such laws, nor will our police officers stop, question or arrest an individual solely on the basis that they may have unlawfully entered the United States. Should our solidarity with ‘Sanctuary Cities’ put in peril the millions of dollars we receive each year from the federal government or via pass-through grants, we will then challenge that decision in court. Win or lose, we will have upheld our values.

Regardless, we will continue to create conditions that afford both sanctuary and opportunity. In my city, that means a higher minimum wage and paid parental leave for city employees. It means second chances and summer jobs for our youth and training for adults. It means supporting entrepreneurs and those who want to live the American dream, regardless of what they look like, who they worship, or where they come from. We recognize the value of being diverse and the meaningful contributions immigrants make to our society, and especially to our national and local economy.

Of course, the larger debate is no longer about sanctuary cities but about President Trump’s demonization of Muslims and the recent suspension of our refugee program.

Immigration, and the provision of shelter for those who arrive here, is hardwired into our national DNA. It is, in fact, the very foundation of America. In the age of not just Trump but unhealthy nationalism, it rests with cities to honor this history and to shine even brighter as “beacons of pluralism”, to quote ‘If Mayors Ruled The World’ author Benjamin Barber.

Just recently, we saw how communities can mobilize when millions of women and their allies marched on Washington and across our nation and world. In St. Pete, more than 20,000 residents and visitors overflowed a city park named, coincidentally, after our co-founder, Russian immigrant Peter Demens. It was a reminder of just how beautiful our freedom is, and why so many still seek it. My remarks to the crowd included the assurance that no matter what comes next in America, St. Petersburg will be their shelter. My fellow mayors have made similar remarks. Together, we are poised to defend every stitch in the fabric of our cities; to counter the assault on every individual.