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The fallacy of Sanctuary Cities

| Friday, February 3, 2017

In the early 1980s, a handful of faith-based activists along the southwestern border — most notably John Fife, pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona — established the “Sanctuary Movement.” A throwback to the medieval practice of churches providing shelter to all, regardless of alleged crimes, the movement viewed migrants crossing the American border as refugees, not criminals. For the movement’s leaders, it was a moral obligation to offer relief to a vulnerable population who fled the death squads that flourished in many Central American nations.

“‘Sanctuary’ is an idea. It’s an action that people have always taken throughout history to protect the victims of human rights violations,” Fife said. “It was a different phenomena back then.”

For Fife and a handful of others, the concept of “taking sanctuary” was literal. Their underground network smuggled mostly Central American refugee families to safety across the border into the United States. Once here, they were given shelter in the physical sanctuary of various churches, and slept between the pews overnight. However, the federal government infiltrated the movement, and in 1985, Fife, along with 10 other church workers, was indicted on 71 counts ranging from harboring illegal aliens to conspiracy. Rather than squelch the movement, sanctuary efforts grew to more than 500 faith groups.

In 2017, the notion of a “sanctuary city” carries with it at least three conflicting designations depending upon the perspective. For today’s undocumented migrant refugee, it is the barricade between the federal government — specifically the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration law enforcement component, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — and the individual who is in jeopardy of deportation merely for crossing the border illegally. These people remember that not long ago in 2007, the George W. Bush policy initially and routinely raided various workplace locations to round up anyone without papers, and then began raiding homes looking to deport anyone here illegally.

On the other hand, for law enforcement, local and federal officials are divided by the degree of cooperation a sanctuary city should offer in response to a federal request, known as a detainer. Federal agencies like ICE seek assistance from local law enforcement nationwide. Originally, an ICE detainer mandated that a wanted undocumented criminal in a local detention facility be held an additional 48 hours so that ICE can arrange to take custody of that wanted person. Under Bush, this could have been any undocumented person regardless of criminal activity or upstanding community character.

Barrack Obama’s policy shifted in an effort to seek a balanced working relationship between federal and local officials. Detainer language was rewritten to request rather than mandate. The additional 48-hour detention language was modified so that local law enforcement officials were asked to notify ICE 48 hours before the release so that ICE could be present upon release. In the eyes of local law enforcement officials, the sanctuary city structure has evolved into a patchwork approach in place of a national immigration policy.

It is ironic that the sanctuary movement continues through a new generation of advocates, local law enforcement officials. They agree that sanctuary is useful and necessary, but with the opposite condition — not cooperating with ICE actually endangers their communities. They seek to prioritize and remove the high-level criminals in conjunction with the federal government while waiting for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration standards. Fife concludes, “This is not a bunch of left-wing radicals. These are sheriffs and police chiefs.”

During CNN’s town hall event Tuesday, a woman whose son was tortured then murdered by a man who should have been removed for past criminal activity confronted House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi explained that people do not disobey the law in sanctuary cities, but are enabled to live there and come forward as a witness of a crime without fear of ICE removal.

“The point is that you do not turn law enforcement officers into immigration officers,” Pelosi concluded. “That is really what the point is in a sanctuary city. So it’s not a question of giving sanctuary to someone who is guilty of a crime — they should be deported.”

Finally, the missing stakeholder in this federal-local tug of war — grieving survivors of relatives lost at the hands of an undocumented criminal — remained nearly invisible until Donald Trump stepped into the presidential race in 2015. For them, the only reality they knew was twofold: first, they overwhelmingly saw an injustice that permitted undocumented criminals to roam the streets reeking havoc. Secondly, their feeling of loss continually festers while they watch officials fail to remove those who should be removed. During the Trump campaign, the stories of family losses grew in stature.

Sanctuary cities serve to shelter the undocumented without criminal records. Such safe havens could be eliminated through congressional comprehensive immigration action — if only hardliners who desire to deport all 12 million presently in the United States would consider a path to legalization. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the last immigration package into law. Reagan said, “I supported this bill. I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

Given the current White House deportment, only congressional action can remedy our sanctuary city myth.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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