Immigration has been at the forefront of political debate. From either side of the aisle, both critics and proponents of stronger immigration laws have been debating the issue of “sanctuary cities.” But what are these sanctuary cities, and what kind of legal protections do they offer immigrants who fear deportation?
First, it’s important to understand that the term “sanctuary city” is largely symbolic. From a legal standpoint, no city official has the power to prevent the federal government from deporting members of their communities. On the other hand, we are a nation of immigrants, so sanctuary cities offer a protective shield to those who would try to pinpoint and deport undocumented workers or immigrants at random. The protections afforded by sanctuary cities come from the court of public opinion.
Sanctuary cities have become one of the defining topics of the political debate surrounding immigration. On the right side of the aisle, politicians blame sanctuary cities like San Francisco for providing a safe haven for criminals. They repeatedly cite the shooting of Kate Steinle, who was killed on a tourist promenade by an undocumented worker with a long criminal history.
President Donald J. Trump has been trying to restrict federal funding to sanctuary cities by issuing a series of executive orders. These orders have been shot down by judges in the U.S. district court in San Francisco.
As part of the “Sanctuary Movement,” four states, 364 counties, and 39 cities have adopted pro-immigration policies, citing their areas as refuges from ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). But what makes a city (or county or state) a sanctuary is a matter of interpretation. Some of the largest sanctuary cities – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and our fair city of Houston – limit their cooperation with ICE forces. They also refuse to turn over unauthorized immigrants from jails unless they meet certain conditions.
The idea of a sanctuary city is actually not new. In the early 1980s, the “sanctuary movement” began in faith-based communities, as an extension of the medieval practice in which churches offered refuge for all. But historical practice was focused on providing shelter to those who committed crimes – for churches in the southwestern United States, they weren’t providing shelter to outlaws. They were protecting refugees.
The 1980s were a period of tumult and bloody civil war in Central America. Thousands fled north from Guatemala and El Salvador, seeking refuge near Tucson, Arizona. Church leaders were appalled when they saw immigration officials turning away men, women, and children, so they decided to intervene.
They believed that their moral obligation to help the vulnerable superseded federal law, so they began to smuggle in refugees at night, guiding them across the border to safety. In this sense, the term “sanctuary” was literal, because many immigrant families lived within the churches themselves. At night, they slept in the pews. Then, a quiet movement was born.
The sanctuary cities of today have turned into a politicized act. The current administration is committed to ending sanctuary cities and some state governments have taken that hard line as well. In particular, Texas has sought to pass a law that would ban cities and counties throughout the state from adopting sanctuary policies. Many officials, including the mayor of Houston, have shrugged off the efforts, stating that they will always be committed to protecting the foundation of American democracy.
Though still restricted by federal laws, sanctuary cities offer important protections to those who wish to remain in the United States. The administration may try to dismantle them, but they don’t appear to be going anywhere in the near future. For more information speak to an attorney at The Law Office of David A. Breston.
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