Why “Sanctuary” Matters

Markeshia Ricks PhotoWhat makes a city a sanctuary? And what makes it a “sanctuary city” and thus a target for raids and cuts to federal funding?

Is it even necessary to label a city such to let immigrants, regardless of status, know they are welcome?

About 100 people gathered at Gateway Community College Monday to tackle those questions on the same day that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated his plans to cut off U.S. Department of Justice funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with federal orders to detain undocumented immigrants.

Sponsored by WSHU, WNPR and the New England News Collaborative, the event began with state Office of Policy Management Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Mike Lawlor explaining to the crowd that the attorney general’s comments weren’t much different from what President Trump said in his executive order two months ago. Withholding federal funds from “sanctuary cities” isn’t as cut and dried as the Trump administration might have people to believe, Lawlor argued.

“They’ve never said what that means, right?,” Lawlor said. “I can tell you for sure that there is not a state policy or statute that is in violation of federal law when it comes to immigration.”

Lawlor said given that the Trump administration hasn’t clearly defined what it means by “sanctuary” jurisdictions it’s hard to gauge how to respond to threats of funding cuts. He cited court cases that have established that attempts by the federal government to force state and local law enforcement “to do their bidding” have been ruled unconstitutional. He noted instances where the U.S. Supreme Court made such rulings in a case involving the Brady Law and the Affordable Care Act.

He also suggested that attempts to tie federal grants to unrelated federal goals such as linking education or work force grants to immigration law have also been found to be unconstitutional.

“Immigration enforcement is not a state or local responsibility,” Lawlor said.

Lawlor noted that the president’s own executive order makes exemptions for aid to law enforcement agencies, and that the agencies most likely to be impacted by the DOJ withholding funding would be law enforcement agencies, a point Sessions also made Monday.

“I think the administration has a pretty well documented track record right now of not quite getting it right when it comes to proposals,” he said, drawing a chuckle from the crowd. “We’ll see what happens.”

Though there is no legal definition of a sanctuary city, Yale Law School professor Muneer Ahmad said that about 600 jurisdictions, including states like Connecticut and cities like New Haven, have declared themselves sanctuaries by adopting policies that limit state and local immigration enforcement.

“And the reason for that is understanding that were state and local police to get directly involved in immigration enforcement they would undermine trust within communities,” Ahmad said. “Trust is essential to ensuring folks are kept safe, whether they are victims of crime or witnesses to crime.”

That trust means that undocumented people can approach police and share information without fear of being turned over to immigration, deported and separated from their families. It also is the fundamental element of community policing. Sessions and Trump argue that local failure to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement makes cities more dangerous by allowing violent criminals to roam free; advocates like those at Monday night’s event argue that Sessions’ threat makes cities less safe because sanctuary policies are necessary for law enforcement to gain the trust of immigrants and thus prevent and solve crimes.

“Community policing turns on trust,” Ahmad said. “You can’t have the value of community policing within communities when the very people you turn to for protection might also be the ones to terrorize their families.”

It’s Personal

New Haven started the process of building that trust and becoming a sanctuary city before the concept was such a hot topic of discussion. Kica Matos of the Center for Community Changes noted that 13 years ago organizations like JUNTA for Progressive Action, Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) and Saint Rose of Lima Church began working to address some of the systemic problems facing the undocumented population in New Haven including wage theft, unfair housing practices and the constant threat of robbery because they could not open bank accounts.

It was through that organizing that a police general order made it policy that New Haven police officers do not ask about immigration status. They city also translated government documents into Spanish, established an immigrant affairs office, and created an immigrant-friendly resident ID. Such immigrant friendly policies, put the city directly in the crosshairs of stepped up immigration enforcement in the aughts. In 2007, 32 undocumented immigrants were swept up in an early morning Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid.

Matos reminded the crowd that the word “sanctuary” isn’t just a matter of semantics. To the undocumented it means the ability to come out of the shadows. The election of Donald Trump has brought back those old fears of raids, she said.

“It’s only gotten worse since the inauguration,” she said. “I think when we talk about sanctuary, does it matter, do the words matter, I just want to urge you to think of the perspective of the people who are now back in the shadows living a few miles from here [in Fair Haven]. Those who are now afraid to take their kids to school, afraid of what will happen when they go to work, who don’t socialize anymore because they are afraid of deportation.”

Matos said for those people, having city officials like Mayor Toni Harp, mayoral Chief of Staff Tomas Reyes and Interim Police Chief Anthony Campbell declare the city’s sanctuary status matters a lot.

“I urge you to think of the use of language because what we say and do, really does matter for those living their lives in fear right now,” she added.

GOP Chair Challenges Speakers

State Republican Party Chair J.R. Romano spoke about a different fear that has arisen in the face of protests in support of the rights of undocumented immigrants and growing talk of sanctuary cities. That fear is among those American citizens who believe—right or wrong—that undocumented immigrants are taking something from them whether it’s their safety, or usurping their access to jobs and education, Romano argued.

Romano cited the murder of Casey Chadwick of Norwich by a man from Haiti, who was in the country illegally, and a vague reference to a friend who didn’t get into Yale University presumably because “his spot was given was given to someone else,” to exemplify that fear.

Members of the crowd challenged him not to let those in his party get away with substituting facts with their perceptions. He pleaded for the audience to hear the other side and to keep the dialogue going.

“This is a very difficult and personal issue for so many people,” he said. “We talk about fairness ... but there are many Americans who feel that this is not fair.”

Angel Fernandez-Chavero, who heads New Haven’s Commission on Equal Opportunity, told Romano that the Republican Party engages in rhetoric that blames all immigrants when one commits a crime, or blames them when some entitled person doesn’t get their way.

“I went to Yale, my sister went to Yale and my little sister went to U.C. Berkeley, and we are the children of Mexican immigrants,” he said. “We worked super hard to fulfill our parents’ dreams.”


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posted by: Henry J. Fernandez on March 28, 2017  10:27am

People talking intelligently about issues at an event sponsored by public radio in a space provided by the local community college—this is what democracy looks like.  If we did not come together through our government to have public radio or to create a college in our downtown dedicated to educating everyone, would this conversation have happened?  Probably not.  And, we would all be less wise as a city, community and country.

Unfortunately, Trump’s budget would severely cut funds that support community colleges and community college students while eliminating funding for public radio.  This is a budget that has as one of its goals the denial of accessible and accurate knowledge for Americans.


posted by: Noteworthy on March 28, 2017  10:59am

Word games.

posted by: robn on March 28, 2017  12:22pm

No sanctuary for immigrants! Send the Irish and Italians home.

posted by: TheMadcap on March 28, 2017  12:46pm

“and a vague reference to a friend who didn’t get into Yale University presumably because “his spot was given was given to someone else,” to exemplify that fear.”

So basically we should coddle people being idiots?

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on March 28, 2017  12:57pm

I commend J.R. Romano for showing up. Some immigrants, documented or not, in fact commit horrible crimes. So do some native-born Irish-Americans (my people, in case it was not obvious from my name). But no one suggested holding the terrorist actions of Michael McVeigh against the Irish.

While I think Mike Lawlor is right is correct in his constitutional analysis, I doubt that New Haven is a sanctuary city as that term is used in Trump’s executive order. The executive order seeks to penalize municipalities that wilfully violate a provision of federal law. That provision, in effect, requires law enforcement agencies to share information they have on the immigration status of people they come in contact with. I don’t think that provision requires municipalities to ascertain the immigration status of anyone, certainly not witnesses to crimes or crime victims. I’m a Ph.D., not a lawyer. But Sen. Blumenthal, Gov. Malloy, and other lawyers have concluded that policies in New Haven and elsewhere in Connecticut do not violate federal law.

posted by: vpaul on March 28, 2017  6:37pm

robn - How about the English? And we celebrate Thanksgiving, started by those undocumented aliens!

Seriously, Mr. Romano plays into the stereotype that helps kill the two-party system in New Haven. He doesn’t represent many of us, folks; don’t use the same generalizations for which you criticize Trump!

Romano needs to use his Party influence to change inane policy directions that feed into bad images. Stay in Hartford and get on the phone, or, even better, GO to Washington, JR!

posted by: wendy1 on March 29, 2017  8:06am

Republicans should be tarred and feathered, run out of town on a rail, and denied entrance to any and all restaurants, diners, and eateries, all of which employ so-called “illegals”.  No sanctuary for republicans!!!!!!—-close-minded bigots.  Their choice is to hate and segregate so time to ostracize them now.

posted by: jcelrey on March 29, 2017  11:28am

Not sure why people like to pick and choose what laws to follow. New Haven/Liberals have no problem coming up with ordinances/laws that take citizen’s freedoms away but it has a problem with the enforcement of federal law.  What’s so hard with just complying?  “Your not supposed to be here, go HOME!”  Can’t show up to a party without an invitation!  But the Libs say “it’s for the children”.  Say that if your a Black or Hispanic in poverty and your child has to get in the back of the like because an ILLEGAL ALIEN’S kid needs to be helped first.  Or the fact that they can’t get decent jobs because the ILLEGAL ALIENS are taking them and getting paid under the table and NOT PAYING TAXES.  WAKE UP NEW HAVEN!  How long are you going to let these people stay while you flip the bill for them.  Enforce the laws of the land!

posted by: vpaul on March 29, 2017  2:37pm

Way to go, Wendy. Close-minded, generalized and stereotypical thinking like that is what cost you and your “ilk” the last Presidential election! Here I am, criticizing my State Chairman for his position, and you’re trashing me.

“Why can’t we all get along?”

posted by: vpaul on March 29, 2017  3:23pm

After reading the Reyes comments, I know the “JC” does not stand for the Prince of Peace or “Love thy neighbor.”

This is a broken system, and until it is repaired we should stop blaming those that are here to better themselves and their families. If your concern is real, sue those that employ “undocumented” workers at slave wages for all the damage they are causing!

posted by: JCFremont on March 30, 2017  7:15am

Here is how the immigration discussion goes these days. One side goes to a discussion at let’s say a Community College, and hears stories of successful and feel good stories. Another group, let’s say call’s a radio station and hears stories about crime and social turmoil. I guess we can brand this battle The Sanctimonious vs. The “Haters”. Immigration has always been used to keep “wages” down and it still is going on today. I believe what might have been the tipping point in November elections where reports of companies replacing software programmers and engineers with H1 visa applicants. These are the workers who career training was geared for success and stability? Now they find themselves in the same situation as the assembly line worker. Our school systems claim to be top notch but I ask why do companies claim that there is a lack of highly trained applicants? Is it because our schools need to spend time on the basic’s because of language barriers and other diversity discussions that take time from the three R’s? And what other minority group is most affected in the class room by this burden?

The word “Comprehensive” has become a term for politicians like to avoid making a tough decision, maybe because there is entire career infrastructure that would end if a “problem” was deemed to have been “solved.”