Zaira Emiliana Livier, director and co-founder at People’s Defense Initiative, is leading the effort to place Tucson Families Free & Together on November’s city election ballot, which would make Tucson a sanctuary city.

A week ago, a bold and courageous political effort kicked off. The nascent grass-roots community action group People’s Defense Initiative launched the campaign called Tucson Families Free & Together. It would place an initiative on November’s city election ballot that would make Tucson, an immigrant-friendly community, a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants.

I could write a column making a case for it and I will. But not today. Instead I give this space to the organization’s leader to make the eloquent and forceful case in support of getting more than 9,000 valid signatures by July 5 to place the initiative on the ballot.

Evoking the fury and fortitude of anti-slavery 19h century speakers and 20th century suffragettes and civil rights leaders, Zaira Emiliana Livier framed her case in moral terms and righteous faith in doing “what is right.” She spoke in the courtyard of the Historic Y on North Fifth Avenue before an audience of supporters.

Many of you will disagree. That’s fine. Most of you are unsure. That’s understandable. Immigration is a complex, emotional issue that has taken different shapes in our history and continues to perplex our country.

But the arc of social change and people’s attitudes and beliefs is a long one, and immigration is on that long path.

Livier asked “What do we do now?” She answered: “We’re gonna get on the ballot. We’re gonna win this.”

The young activist, who headed the Southern Arizona effort in support of the successful minimum wage campaign in 2017, said she was asked by a local reporter if the effort is an attempt to protect people who are here “illegally.”

“Yup that’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Livier said the issue surrounding sanctuary and illegal immigration is about the narrative that is created by government and anti-immigrant groups and that it is time to reframe the discussion and “take the narrative back.”

“Sanctuary is not controversial,” she said. What’s controversial is local police handing families and people over to the Border Patrol. What’s controversial is ICE ripping people apart. SB 1070, the 2010 state law that made illegal presence a violation of state law but has since had large parts ruled unconstitutional, “is controversial.”

“Saying that we want to protect people and their human rights, that is not controversial and we refuse to take part of that any longer,” said Livier.

She said that the word sanctuary “has been weaponized.” But in reversing that, Livier said the campaign is basing its efforts on truth: “We’re going to call it what it is. It is a sanctuary city initiative and we are so proud and we’re not going to back away from it.”

Livier said people have asked, why should Tucson be a sanctuary city? History and precedence is her answer.

Tucson, said Livier, is the birthplace of the sanctuary movement of the 1970s and 1980s that protected Central American refugees escaping civil war. She said that is when the Rev. John Fife and Southside Presbyterian Church and others said “not here, not today, not anymore. This is a sanctuary.” They fought long and hard to protect people and the proposed initiative is a continuation of that historic struggle.

Over the years, immigration activists have led the protests against SB 1070 and Operation Streamline, the federal government’s mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Activists also persuaded the Pima County Board of Supervisors to reject federal funds for Operation Stonegarden, a grant the Sheriff’s Department used for expenses related to immigration enforcement.

“If any city is going to do this in this racist and xenophobic state, it’s going to be Tucson,” Livier said.

Why? Because “this is direct democracy.”

A people-led initiative is the result of the failure of our elected officials to create a sanctuary city. “We are tired of waiting. We are done asking.”

Livier said city officials have done a good job in making Tucson an immigrant-friendly city. “But we can do it better and we can add some teeth to it and guess what, we can make it permanent so that they can never change it again without taking it right back to the voters, without us having a direct say what is law.”

By creating a sanctuary city, where city officials and law enforcement officers would be prohibited from collaborating with federal immigration agents and agencies, Tucson will be a better place for all families. Organizers have a vision of a city with more affordable housing, better paying jobs, and preschool and child care, and the initiative is a step toward that future.

“This looks like a sanctuary-immigration bill but when you actually look at it this is the very first step in that future that we want to create and in that narrative.”

Livier closed with a rousing call to action.

“Now is exactly the time. Why not now? When else would we do it? It is never convenient to help poor working-class people who are undocumented.”

Now is the time to take bold meaningful action and not cower to the state Legislature and the president, she said.

It’s time to reject the narrative based on lies and division and send a new message “that protecting undocumented people is good.”

“One based on hope, one based on self-evident truths that all people are created equal and endowed with the same unalienable rights of life and liberty.”

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at 573-4187 or netopjr@tucson.com. On Twitter: @netopjr.