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Seeking Sanctuary: Separating Fact from Fiction on “Sanctuary Cities”

Yesterday was another one of those split-screen kind of days. In Washington, President Donald Trump gathered together a group of anti-immigrant hardliners to condemn California’s “sanctuary state” law that restricts local law enforcement agencies’ coordination with ICE. Meanwhile in Carson City the Nevada Supreme Court partially overturned a district court ruling blocking a ballot initiative to ban “sanctuary cities” in this state, yet ordered a rewrite that essentially prevents any chance of the initiative making this year’s ballot.

We hear a lot about how “sanctuary cities” are such a “political hot potato”, but we don’t always get the whole story on what these policies actually do and why they’ve been put into place. It’s time for us to clear the air and get all the facts straight on “sanctuary cities”.

How did this all begin?
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Though the American sanctuary movement has gathered new steam with progressives seeking to resist the Trump administration with every legal tool available, “sanctuary city” policies can actually be traced all the way back to the pre-Civil War era, when abolitionists sought to resist the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that required that any person escaping slavery must be returned to one’s owner. Massachusetts enacted a personal liberty law to bar state and local law enforcement from assisting the federal government and slave states from recapturing those who escaped slavery, and other Northern states followed. This resistance served as inspiration for civil rights activists over a century later, as churches became sanctuaries for those fighting the institutionalized racism of Jim Crow.

Then in the early 1980s, Central American refugees were fleeing tyrannical governments and bloody civil wars and seeking a better life in America. Federal immigration officials sought to deport these refugees regardless of the brutality they were escaping (and due to then President Ronald Reagan’s support for the right-wing movements perpetrating the violence in Central America), and Arizona and California faith activists responded by declaring their congregations sanctuaries where refugees could find shelter without fear of arrest by immigration officers and/or return to the dangerous territory they left behind. Despite their best attempts to fly under the radar, 16 of these activists were caught by federal authorities, and eight were ultimately convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges.

Around the same time, Los Angeles became the first of what we now call “sanctuary cities” when it filed a police order that forbade officers from asking about residents’ immigration status. By 1987, 440 cities across the nation had enacted “sanctuary” policies that varied from mere direction of law enforcement to avoid asking about immigration status to clearer refusal to assist in federal deportation actions. And in 1989, San Francisco adopted its now famous “sanctuary city” law, a strong “sanctuary” rule that prevents any local police assistance to federal immigration authorities that’s not legally required.

Why do “sanctuary city” opponents claim these laws “protect criminals”?
Photo by Andrew Davey

In July 2015, then candidate Donald Trump seized upon the murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco as proof that the only way to “make America great again” was to elect him President so he could put an end to “sanctuary cities” and build a wall to keep immigrants out of America. Just over a year after his election, Trump denounced a San Francisco jury for acquitting the undocumented immigrant who was accused of the murder, despite prosecutors’ failure to provide sufficient evidence of the defendant’s guilt.

Regardless of the actual facts of the Steinle case, Trump has continued to claim that San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” law caused her death. Before long these claims were parroted by multiple other right-wing politicians, including Nevada’s own Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) and State Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson (R-Henderson).

Photo by Andrew Davey

In 2017, Roberson pushed to derail legislation by State Senator Yvanna Cancela (D-Las Vegas) to direct state and local law enforcement agencies not to ask residents about their immigration status. Though he succeeded in killing the bill here in Nevada, immigrant rights activists succeeded in passing a similar law in Illinois and securing a stronger “sanctuary state” law in California that limits state and local law enforcement agencies’ interaction with federal immigration agents.

From “criminals” to “animals”, a fact check on Trump’s sanctuary spin

The Trump administration and several California municipalities are now suing in federal court to overturn California’s law. To further publicize the lawsuit and his ongoing anti-immigrant crusade, Donald Trump invited a select group of California politicians to the White House yesterday to denounce any and all “sanctuary” jurisdictions. It was during this meeting when Trump exclaimed, “These aren’t people. These are animals.”

Though Trump loves to make blanket declarations that large swaths of immigrants are “criminals”, even “animals”, the truth resides quite far from his vicious fiction. In fact, there’s no real evidence to coordinate Trump’s assertions that “sanctuary citiescause crime. And when crime does occur in their communities, immigrants are more afraid to speak with law enforcement officers thanks to Trump’s constant threats to deport them.

In order for law enforcement officers to be effective at their job, they need a strong relationship with the communities they serve, a relationship with a solid foundation of trust. If communities find reason not to trust law enforcement, that only makes it harder for police to keep such communities safe. This may be the greatest irony of Trump’s crusade against “sanctuary cities”, that he’s straining that relationship between police and the immigrant communities they’re supposed to serve.

And finally, some notes on “the rule of law”
Photo by Andrew Davey

Speaking of irony, the Nevada Supreme Court provided an additional ironic twist yesterday when it ruled against the current language of the “Stop Sanctuary Cities” ballot initiative that Michael Roberson was attempting to place on this year’s general election ballot. Though six of the seven justices disagreed with a lower court ruling on its compliance with the single-subject rule for ballot measures, they still found the language unconstitutional due to its failure to explain potential effects on the state upon passage.

Roberson, Trump, and the entire anti-immigration movement have been basing their lines of attack on the call to “restore the rule of law” and “protect citizens over criminals”. And yet, it’s these very “law and order types” who continue to run afoul of the law. One federal judge has ruled against Trump’s executive order to deny federal funds to “sanctuary cities”, and multiple courts have already been ruling against Trump in his quest to shut down the DACA program to protect DREAMers.

So if the crusade against “sanctuary cities” is not about “upholding the rule of law”, and if it’s not meant to “make America safe again”, then what’s the real purpose here? This is why we must remember our past, and remember the facts, as we assess the present and decide our future.

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Comments (1)

  1. Managing editor

    When I was in school (high school, college) we learned about the underground railroad and acts to eliminate slavery and protect those running from such conditions. We learned about how our nation was built on those coming to the US to seek freedom and opportunity. Later in life, I was proud of those political actors who established sanctuary cities. I have lived around Immigrants, from all religions, and citizens from all countries all my life and never felt threatened. Never for one moment did I think that this Nation would be led by such a chauvinist, traitorous, treasonous, disaffected, disloyal, faithless, false, fickle, inconstant, perfidious, recreant, treacherous, and unfaithful individual as Donald Trump. Yes, those are all synonyms for a Nationalist.

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