The “Sanctuary City” Scam

Policing the immigration debate

In late August, Representative Tom Tancredo, a no-chance GOP presidential candidate, stood behind a podium on the steps of the city hall in Newark, New Jersey. Just two weeks before, three college students had been murdered, and two illegal immigrants had been named as suspects.

As protestors circled on the sidewalk below, Tancredo leaned into an array of microphones. “The fact that Newark, New Jersey, is a sanctuary city for illegal aliens is well known,” he said. “Their polices are a violation of federal law.”

Tancredo’s speech drew national media attention and highlighted the campaign debate over so-called “sanctuary cities,” some of which anti-immigration forces contend are willfully defying federal immigration laws. But despite what Tancredo and many others claim, it’s highly unlikely that Newark’s immigration policies—or the policies of any other major American city, for that matter—are in violation of federal law. And no one on any side of the country’s immigration debate can really define clearly and specifically what a “sanctuary city” is.

The term exists in a linguistic no-man’s land, a frame that suggests urban officials abet soft-headed lawlessness. At best, the press has done a poor job of explaining the motivation and legal framework behind policies slapped with the label; at worst, it has recycled and showcased the term, which is little more than an anti-immigration talking point, without much analysis or skepticism.

Like all good spin, the “sanctuary city” rhetoric contains an ounce of truth. Across the country, cities, counties, states, and police departments of all sizes have adopted policies that limit their participation in active enforcement of federal immigration laws. The reasoning behind these “limiting” policies is not ideological, but rather practical: to the extent that federal laws disrupt local policing efforts, the arguments goes, it is counterproductive to vigorously enforce those laws.

But the term is often used it to refer an even broader constellation of polices. Many are symbolic, like Highstown, New Jersey’s request that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers not shout “Police!” when busting down doors during immigration raids. Others prohibit city employees from asking someone their citizenship status unless suspected or arrested for a crime. According to a position paper released by the Major City Chiefs Association, which represents police executives from the country’s sixty-three largest jurisdictions, if undocumented immigrants fear deportation from local police they’ll never talk—even if witness to or victim of a crime.

But such approaches—driven by concerns over local crime—hardly provide illegal immigrants with anything that could be reasonably called a “safe haven” or “sanctuary.”

That didn’t stop Allison King of New England Cable News from using the terms when she served as a questioner at the September 26 MSNBC Democratic presidential debate. “Sanctuary cities,” she claimed, “provide a safe haven for illegal immigrants, where police are told not to involve themselves in immigration matters.” She then asked the candidates if they would “allow these cities to ignore the federal law regarding the reporting of illegal immigrants and, in fact, provide sanctuary to these immigrants?”

But none of the cities in question prohibit ICE from coming to town, or instruct police to obstruct the work of ICE officers. Police departments, even those in so-called “sanctuary cities,” routinely contact the feds with information about criminals who are also illegal aliens. As Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a congressional committee in early September, “People use the term ‘sanctuary city’ in different ways so I’m never quite sure what people mean.”

“I’m not aware of any city—although I may be wrong—that actually interferes with our ability to enforce the law,” he added

“Sanctuary city” is provocative and catchy, and so it appeals to reporters looking to distill complicated issues into workable stories on deadline. Defenders of the local strategies that spawned the moniker lack a similarly punchy retort.

The immigrant-friendly National Immigration Law Center has compiled a list of local policies that, ironically, is often referred by anti-immigration activists and politicians to show how widespread “sanctuary cites” have become.

“I have trouble finding the bumper-sticker version to accurately describe this,” says Joan Friedland, a lawyer with the Immigration Law Center. Her organization headlines its list: “Laws, Resolutions and Policies Instituted Across the U.S. Limiting Enforcement of Immigration Laws by State and Local Authorities”—a phrase unlikely to make it on air or into a headline.

Knowing a little about the term’s history is important to understanding its current, imputed meaning. In the 1980s, church-based activists aimed to shelter refugees displaced by U.S. policies in Central America. They proudly used the word “sanctuary” when urging people to flout civil immigration law as a matter of civil disobedience.

Some localities, like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chicago’s Cook County, muddy the waters today by officially labeling their limiting policies as a form of “sanctuary.” But whereas Reagan-era sanctuary activists advocated breaking federal law on principle, Cambridge, Cook County, and most every other city on the Law Center’s list are doing just the opposite—carefully striving to comply with federal law while minimizing serious disruptions to law-enforcement efforts.

According to David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo who is an expert on policing policies, using “sanctuary” to refer to laws that direct police to focus on local crimes rather than federal immigration law paints police “as commie, liberal, bleeding hearts going, ‘Oh, these poor people!’ They don’t think like that. They just want to do their job.”

Cities that find themselves hit with the “sanctuary” label—in the press, or on the Internet—can draw fire from angry anti-immigration activists. When a Congressional Research Service report referred to Durham, North Carolina, as a “sanctuary city” without providing an exact legal definition, the city manager says he contacted the city’s congressional office and was assured that the research service had since abandoned the term because it was “very broad.”

The phrase’s meaning—or lack thereof—is belied by plans to crack down on cities that employ limiting policies. After a summer of bickering among Republican presidential candidates over who’s been more tolerant of “sanctuary cities”—former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s state is home to five cities on the Law Center list; under Rudy Giuliani, New York City vigorously challenged a federal law that could have endangered the city’s policy on sharing immigration information with the federal government—former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson weighed in on October 23, saying that if elected he would eliminate “sanctuary cities” by denying them federal funds. In his public remarks, Thompson painted with a broad brush, and described the cities as places that don’t “cooperate” with federal authorities.

But the Thompson campaign’s formal proposal is far narrower, a distinction essentially unnoted in press coverage. It merely proposes cutting off federal funds to cities that ignore a 1996 federal law that forbids placing restrictions on the maintenance of immigration data or sharing it with federal authorities.

According to the Law Center’s list, very few cities even flirt with this line. Most local policies steer clear of the question of record-keeping or information exchange, and instead limit the sort of questions that officers ask in routine stops, for instance. To avoid running afoul of the 1996 law, localities have included language explicitly recognizing that their policies limiting information exchange cannot be construed as an order to violate federal law.

Justice Department lawyers seem to agree that very few, if any, cities are in violation of the 1996 law. In a January 2007 report prepared for Congress by the department’s inspector general, analysts examined immigration cooperation—including compliance with the laws on the maintenance and sharing of immigration data—among jurisdictions receiving federal reimbursement for costs associated with jailing illegal aliens. Of the 752 localities that collect funds under the scheme, seven of the largest beneficiaries received extra scrutiny; of these, ICE officials only voiced complaints about San Francisco, but in the end conceded that the city met the “bare minimum” for compliance. The Justice Department, pointing to exemptions in that city’s policy, concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to find the city in violation. Survey responses by another 99 localities found no violators.

Despite multiple requests by CJR, the Thompson campaign was unable to point to cities likely to lose funds under its plan, meaning that it was unable to identify cities meeting even Thompson’s own limited definition of a “sanctuary city.” Congressional proponents of similar proposals also failed to name cities when contacted by Alex Koppelman, who wrote on the plans for Salon in early October.

Despite the term’s flimsiness, it clearly holds currency among the electorate. Republicans, as The Washington Post recently noted, see an emerging wedge issue in immigration. According to an August poll by Rasmussen Reports, 58 percent of voters would favor cutting federal funds to “‘sanctuary cities’ that offer protection to illegal immigrants.” Republican state legislators in Michigan, New Jersey, and Wisconsin are considering legislation similar to a bill introduced by Colorado Republicans and enacted last year claiming to ban “sanctuary cities.”

“Sanctuary city” is a freighted term, impossible to define in a meaningful way, and broadly inapplicable to what is happening with immigration in American cities. It is exactly the kind of rhetoric that we need the press to take apart and explain—clearly and repeatedly—all the ways it is misused.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.