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Walsh affirms Boston’s role as sanctuary city

Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke to the media while surrounded by children during an immigrant and refugee community forum held at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh offered a passionate defense of immigration and religious diversity at the city’s largest mosque Friday night during a forum to hear the fears and concerns raised by the Trump administration’s executive orders regarding immigration and refugees.

The mayor struck a defiant stance in discussing Boston’s status as a sanctuary city, even though the Trump administration has warned that communities that offer sanctuary protections for undocumented immigrants could endanger their federal funding.

“I’m not afraid of losing money, first of all because we have the Constitution on our side, and secondly, we’re doing the right thing here in the city of Boston,” he said at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.


He added later: “If people want to criticize me for this . . . there’s an election in November.”

The event was the first in a series of forums the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement plans to hold to address immigrant and refugee needs. The mayor brought with him officials from a number of departments to answer questions and heard stories from people who attended.

One young woman, Nour Tabidi, the American-born daughter of Sudanese immigrants, told the mayor about how she and her new husband, a Sudanese national, were temporarily prevented from traveling back to the United States because of a Trump administration travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries.

“I was so scared that we’d have to start the visa process all over again, the idea that I would be separated from my dad and my siblings in the US or separated from my husband in Sudan,” she said.

Rahmatullah Aka, an Afghan man who helps resettle refugees, spoke about the anxiety and distress within families who remain separated from their relatives.

“We are trying to help them to focus so they can become part of the society but they have this stress and these questions with them” about how long they will be separated from their families, Aka said.


Some people spoke about larger problems with the immigration system. Khalid Alsobhi, who has been living alone in his Belmont home for two months, said his wife and three children traveled to Saudi Arabia in December to visit relatives and renew their F-1 visas, which had expired. All four of their new visa applications were rejected.

Alsobhi’s children, ages 13, 11, and 5, attend Belmont public schools and have now missed several weeks of class. His wife, a community health student, is undergoing cancer treatment and just missed an appointment last week.

“I do cry, really, because I’m a human being, but I show myself strong,” he said in an interview later. “I’m not giving up until my kids are here.”

Walsh expressed concern about children feeling fear in the Boston schools and about people being afraid to confide in police officers. He spoke about his own parents, who emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s, and he urged those gathered to get to know their neighbors to dispel stereotypes and foster understanding. The mayor also asked everyone to contact their senators and representatives in Congress to demand comprehensive immigration reform.

“They need to hear these stories,” he said. “The correction of immigration should not be a Democratic or Republican issue.”

The mayor is heading into a reelection campaign this fall; politically, his stance on immigration has allowed him to consolidate support from liberal voters as he fends off a challenge from City Councilor Tito Jackson, who had planned to attack Walsh from the left.


The city’s Muslim community is on edge as it awaits a new executive order on immigration and refugees expected to be issued by the White House next week.

A federal appeals court earlier this month suspended most of the president’s Jan. 27 order temporarily barring refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and indefinitely halting the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States.

That order was a blow to many affiliated with the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, which is among the city’s most diverse religious communities. The mosque attracts worshipers of every age, color, and walk of life; immigrants at the leading edge of medical and scientific research pray next to newly arrived refugees with little formal education. Midday Friday prayers typically draw some 1,500 people who speak about five dozen languages.

Another executive order issued Monday toughening deportation rules has also terrified people living in the Boston area without legal permission. Previous protocols prioritized the deportation of violent criminals, but the new rules widen the criteria substantially and speed up the process dramatically for some categories of people.

The Roxbury mosque has developed strong relationships with city and state political figures and with the interfaith community.

It is familiar ground to the mayor, who addressed the community several times in the last few years. Walsh also appeared at a large rally in support of Muslims in Copley Square on Jan. 29 after the president’s travel ban was issued, and he joined protesters at Logan Airport.


Shaykh Yasir Fahmy spoke warmly of seeing the mayor at the airport protest, describing, to applause, how the mayor waited until all the detainees had been released “to make sure the last person walked out . . . he texted me and said I have the last person with me.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at