What 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.”
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.”