Immigrants Seeking Refuge in ‘Sanctuary Cities’ Are in Luck—for Now

Advocates say policies that shield immigrants from deportation foster trust between communities and local police.
(Photo: Twitter)
Oct 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As police nationwide work to rebuild trust with the communities they serve, advocates say an anti-immigration bill’s defeat in Congress on Tuesday will do just that—but not in the way its authors intended.

“Sanctuary cities,” which maintain policies that limit the cooperation of local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities, have become a contentious talking point among lawmakers and presidential candidates in recent months. These laws, called detainer policies, seek to shield immigrants from deportation but don’t prevent immigration officials from intervening or taking undocumented people into custody once they’ve been found guilty of a crime.

The bill was introduced by Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and died in the Senate; it aimed to punish such jurisdictions by cutting off grant funding to local police departments that don’t alert federal officials when they release undocumented immigrants from their custody.

Opponents of detainer policies, such as Vitter and Donald Trump, believe local police should be required to turn over undocumented immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement regardless of whether they have a criminal conviction. Immigrants’ rights advocates argue that policies like Vitter’s seed distrust in communities with large immigrant populations and discourage them from cooperating with or assisting law enforcement for fear of deportation.

“Because we haven’t had immigration reform for almost two generations, there are many families that have mixed [immigration] status,” Mark Fleming, litigation coordinator for the National Immigrant Justice Center, told TakePart. For example, while a child born in the U.S. to immigrant parents might have legal status, his or her parents may not.

“There is a deep distrust within many immigrant communities that fear if they get involved with [police] in any way, if they’re witness or victim to a crime, that they’ll get ensnared in the civil immigration enforcement apparatus,” Fleming continued. “Detainer policies disentangle these two systems and foster trust between local law enforcement and communities.”

Cities that seek to build trust with immigrant communities through detainer policies, of which there are roughly 130, came into the spotlight in July after the death of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle. Steinle was shot and killed along the waterfront in San Francisco. The accused shooter, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, is an undocumented immigrant with a nonviolent felony record who had repeatedly been deported to Mexico. Lopez-Sanchez contends the shooting was an accident. Steinle’s death was seized upon by Republican lawmakers as evidence that the presence of undocumented people in the U.S. is inherently dangerous.

“I refuse to simply stand by and reward jurisdictions around the country with federal funding, with taxpayer funds, when they are in clear violation of the law, and they are actively making our communities more dangerous,” Vitter said Monday during a debate on his bill.

RELATED: The Renewed Debate Over How Cities Interact With Undocumented Immigrants

Numerous studies have shown immigrants are less likely to commit serious, violent crime or be incarcerated than those who are native-born; Lopez-Sanchez’s alleged involvement in Steinle’s death was an outlier. While the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. more than tripled between 1990 and 2013, FBI data shows that the violent crime rate dropped by almost 50 percent during the same period.

“It’s good to see that a bald attempt at trying to exploit one tragic story in order to meet a political end is roundly defeated by good public policy that will keep communities more safe,” Fleming said of Vitter’s bill.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on Tuesday to continue to shield undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from federal agents. While the city’s choice to maintain its detainer policy and the failure of Vitter’s bill are seen as a win for immigrants, legislators in Michigan and Texas are cafefully considering policies like the one proposed by Vitter, and North Carolina passed a bill prohibiting sanctuary ordinances in October.