A week or so ago, a commenter to this blog asked for an explanation of Sanctuary Cities and States. The question was understandable, because the Trump Administration–beginning back when Jeff Sessions was Attorney General– has consistently misrepresented the issues involved.
Anti-immigration activists and apologists for the administration insist that “sanctuary” cities and states are places where the rule of law has been suspended — places where evil Democratic-controlled governments have formed alliances with “open borders radicals” (as Sessions once put it) to prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from arresting unauthorized immigrants even when they’ve been convicted of crimes.
Back when Sessions was threatening to withhold federal grants from cities and states that dared to declare themselves Sanctuaries, Vox did one of its “explainer” columns, in an effort to dispel misunderstandings on both sides of the political divide with what it termed “the wonky truth.”
The federal government has spent the past 20 years using local government (especially law enforcement) as a force multiplier to help it find, arrest, and deport immigrants more efficiently — and for almost as long, progressives have been trying to reassert local autonomy. At this point, the line between “obstructing” federal law enforcement and simply deciding not to help isn’t as clear as one might expect.
In the courtroom, the fight over sanctuary cities is narrow and technical. Outside the courtroom, it’s a culture war.
One of the problems is that–as the article points out–“Sanctuary city” is not an official government term. In fact, it has no legal meaning.
Lots of people use the unofficial term “sanctuary city” to refer to local jurisdictions (not just cities but counties and sometimes states) that don’t fully cooperate with federal efforts to find and deport unauthorized immigrants. If that sounds vague, that’s because it is, and it gets at the tension between federal policy and local law enforcement generally used to carry out those laws.
One reason for the confusion is that local police departments aren’t legally required to assist the federal government with just any policy the federal government might want to enforce. In 1997, in Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court confirmed that the federal government “may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the State’s officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.”
Immigration law is federal law. Not only is immigration enforcement not a local law enforcement priority–as the article points out, local police don’t usually get involved with the enforcement of, say, federal tax law either–most police chiefs argue that helping apprehend otherwise law-abiding immigrants is a “net negative” for local law enforcement, because it makes immigrant communities leery of police and less likely to report crimes or cooperate with investigations.
So exactly how much assistance local governments should provide in immigration enforcement is an ongoing fight. At heart, it’s been a policy fight over what local governments should do. But under the Trump administration, in particular, it’s taken on the color of law: the idea that cities are refusing to do something they’re obligated to do.
The Trump administration alleges that local ordinances or state laws that bar the sharing of information about immigrants — like California’s SB 54, which prevents jail officials from telling ICE when a prisoner will be released (in many cases) unless ICE has a warrant signed by a judge — violate the federal law. Cities and states that have passed such policies, however, argue that sharing information about when someone will be released from jail or prison is different from sharing information about their immigration status, so it’s legal for the state to put restrictions on the former.
Whatever the technical legal arguments, the real fight over sanctuary cities or states is political and cultural. As the Vox article notes, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, a number of mayors signaled their “resistance” by declaring themselves sanctuary cities. It was also a way to reassure immigrant residents that while Trump might be making them feel unwelcome in red America, they would always be welcome in America’s (almost all blue) cities.
In response, Republicans have continued to stoke fears with dishonest rhetoric about those “criminal immigrants” and blaming cities and states controlled by Democrats.
Today’s Republicans are waging war with anyone who is “other.” Meaning anyone who isn’t a white Christian native-born male. They’re just reluctant to put it that baldly, so they settle for exaggeration and confusion.