On ‘sanctuary cities,’ let’s listen to law enforcement
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I don’t want to live in a sanctuary city. 

I want law enforcement, local, state and federal, to treat me with respect, focus on real threats to public safety and keep each and every one of us safe.

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I want to live in a safe city. 

This week the House of Representatives is likely to vote on a bill that would make it more difficult for local law enforcement to keep our cities and towns safe. That’s because instead of reaffirming chiefs’ and sheriffs’ efforts to build trust with their communities, these measures would force them to take on the responsibilities of federal immigration enforcement officials.

Despite a noble title, the “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act” is the latest example of an immigration conversation in which legislators and local law enforcement leaders are talking past each other, despite a common goal on which all of us can agree: community safety.     

Nowhere is this disconnect more evident than in the conversation around “sanctuary cities.” By politicizing the idea of such cities, Democrats and Republicans alike have hijacked the term for their own purposes. The result is a polarized debate that cultivates fear — and cities that are not, in fact, safer.

On one side, “sanctuary city” evokes an atmosphere of lawlessness; on the other, “sanctuary city” evokes the city as a refuge for all. Both sides are wrong, particularly when it comes to immigration enforcement.

There is no agreed-upon legal definition of a “sanctuary city.” The term, which is borrowed from the church-centered sanctuary movement of the 1980s, is not defined by federal law and has been applied to a wide variety of cities for a range of reasons.

Therefore, immigration restrictionists pigeonhole local law enforcement departments who prioritize their resources on serious public safety threats, refusing to honor federal requests to detain individuals suspected of being in the U.S. unlawfully, as protectors of “sanctuary cities.”

Being undocumented is a civil infraction, and the civil detainer Immigration and Customs Enforcement issues is not a criminal warrant. The “No Sanctuary” bill would force local compliance with immigration detainers, prevent jurisdictions from maintaining or establishing community trust policies and threaten important law enforcement grant funding that localities need to keep their communities safe.

Police organizations aren’t enthused. On Tuesday the Fraternal Order of Police said in a letter to House leadership that it opposes any legislation that would “penalize law enforcement agencies by withholding Federal funding or resources from law enforcement assistance programs in an effort to coerce a policy change at the local level.”

In fact, local law enforcement agencies that honor civil immigration detainers open themselves up to legal liability for detaining someone without probable cause to believe they have committed a crime. While the “No Sanctuary” bill would indemnify states and localities from civil liability for good-faith enforcement of detainers, it does not address the Fourth Amendment problems behind detaining people under warrantless immigration detainers. Law enforcement should follow the Constitution and not cut corners.

Let’s be clear. In carrying out the hard work of day-to-day law enforcement, departments across the country detain undocumented immigrants who have committed violent crimes, holding them until federal immigration enforcement officials appear to transfer them into custody. No one, native-born or immigrant, wants violent criminals living in their communities.

Local law enforcement’s top concern is public safety, and officers should be pursuing violent criminals, drug dealers and other threats. But in today’s debate about immigrants and sanctuary, law enforcement is caught in the middle as their valuable resources are seen as tools for the detention and deportation of all undocumented immigrants. 

President Trump has created a level of fear that increasingly is pushing immigrant communities away from local law enforcement. Furthermore, his administration has blamed local law enforcement departments for releasing violent criminals into the community, when they cooperate extensively with federal authorities. The newly introduced bills would only worsen this dynamic.

Congress and the administration should act to clarify enforcement priorities, then stick to them and apply them consistently throughout the country.

What’s the solution? Certainly not short-sighted policies such as the bill the House will take up this week. But also not a rush by cities to declare themselves “sanctuaries.”

We need to look to law enforcement to find a new consensus.

Every cop on the corner takes an oath to serve and protect the entirety of their community, regardless of age, gender, race or immigration status.

Their ability to honor that oath — without the interference of federal laws that play on and stoke our fears — makes for safe cities in which we all can live, contribute and thrive. 

Ali Noorani is executive director of the National Immigration Forum and author of “There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration” (Prometheus Books, April 2017).


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.