Sanctuary Cities: What They Are And Why We Must Defend Them

by Jhanisse V. Daza 
Much has been written recently on the blurry definition of Sanctuary Cities. In response to the current president signing an executive order on January 25th cutting federal funds to such cities and imploring the justice department to undermine efforts to protect immigrants, backlash ensued from local authorities as well as civilian protesters who support the rights of immigrants. I have had the blessing to work in an immigration defense law firm as all of these changes are made to immigration policy, and it is heartbreaking to see even more restrictions on the lives of undocumented citizens. What is even worse is seeing so much support for these new executive orders from people who don’t fully understand how the immigration system works, and therefore don’t understand what they are supporting. I am convinced that if we all educate ourselves a little better, we will see how an end to Sanctuary Cities affects not only immigrants, but every single citizen in those municipalities—including you.


Let’s begin: it is essential to end the misunderstanding about Sanctuary Cities. Those who oppose them seem to conceive such municipalities as completely lawless when it comes to immigration, as well as bluntly disobeying the government. This is far from the case. It is critical to understand that the duty and power to enforce immigration laws lies with the federal government and not with state or local officers. Sanctuary Cities simply reject the use of local funds to enforce immigration laws that are federal responsibility. Furthermore, whenever an immigrant violates the law and is apprehended, this person does go to court and face all the corresponding proceedings regardless of their immigration status. Once the criminal process is over, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) begins the requisite immigration procedure, often leading to deportation. One of the differences between Sanctuary Cities and non-Sanctuary Cities is that when the crimes are minor (a traffic ticket, for example), local officers do not report the person to ICE. Similarly, officers in Sanctuary Cities are not required to determine the immigration status of all persons with which they interact.


The notion of having a safe haven for immigrants is nothing new to this country nor exclusive to any administration. The Sanctuary movement in the U.S. evolved during the 1980s when several religious organizations operated as safe havens for refugees fleeing violence in Central America. While civil wars broke out in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, Reagan’s administration toughened immigration procedures and denied entry to refugees from these countries. The American public then joined the sanctuary movement, and several cities officially declared themselves Sanctuary Cities.


Back to the executive order released on January 25th: it also included new mandates that could further deter security for immigrants in all cities, not just Sanctuary ones. The order indicates that all aliens (all non-US Citizens, legal visa holders included) must be removed not only if convicted of a crime in the U.S., but also if they are simply charged with one—it even goes to so far as to say, “where such charge has not been resolved.” This means that both documented and undocumented immigrants may be deported even before, or without, being found guilty.


The repercussions of the annulment of Sanctuary Cities and the other changes instituted in this recent executive order are recognizable for those knowledgeable in immigration law and practices—and should be known as well for the general public (millennials, I’m thinking of you).

If you think of all immigrants and how their time in this country can be abruptly ended just because their next-door neighbor doesn’t like them and chooses to file random charges against them—that is already frightening. Amplify your scope and apply similar thinking to all citizens of a community, immigrants or nationals. If some people are afraid of denouncing a crime or calling the authorities because they might be questioned on their immigration status, that gives a green light for real felons to remain unreported and unpunished.


In my time working with undocumented immigrants, I have noticed that many of them are the targets of phone scams: unidentified phone calls from people threatening to report them to immigration officers unless they pay the caller a certain amount of money by a specific time that week. Sometime the victims, who are already overworked and underpaid, succumb to the scam and pay the required amount out of fear of deportation. Needless to say, such threats go unreported. The victim stays silent, and the extortionists get what they want. This is one of many examples I could give, but I want to believe that you, reader, have enough judgement to understand the abuse these situations entail—an abuse that should not have a place in a democratic, law-abiding country. Now ask yourself: who is the real criminal here?


Attacking Sanctuary Cities will give room for more crimes and perhaps other complications as well. For local police officers to be expected to take on the duty of immigration control, there ought to be appropriate training and resources. Enforcement of immigration control by untrained officers may easily lead to civil rights violations. Furthermore, this would damage the trust between local communities and their authorities. Victims of crimes will be too fearful to cooperate with authorities due to fear of deportation. This deters the safety not only of those immigrants but the community as a whole.


I encourage you to read more on the subject and join any local movements around you to defend this safe haven system. In the end, the weight and damage of an end to Sanctuary Cities will be felt mainly on a local level, far away from the executive office imposing these new orders.

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