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Scaremongers and the Myth of the Sanctuary City

Opponents of Arizona’s immigration law celebrated a victory on Wednesday when a federal judge blocked its most notably controversial provisions, including a mandate compelling police to check the immigration status of residents stopped, detained or arrested. But the bill’s chief sponsor, Arizona Sen. Russell Pearce, also declared the ruling a win. The injunction left standing a measure prohibiting sanctuary cities, a blanket term for the spectrum of municipal policies that limit local enforcement of federal immigration laws. Of the ruling, Pearce said: "Striking down these sanctuary city policies has always been the number one priority of SB 1070.” In this case, Pearce indulges in a little revisionist history; the bill was sold as a necessary measure to bolster public safety and drive out undocumented immigrants from the state, not a means to compel its cities to enforce federal immigration law.

For other SB1070 cheerleaders, however, the Department of Justice lawsuit gets it “exactly backwards.” The federal government, as the argument goes, should sue sanctuary cities for failing to enforce federal immigration law, not Arizona for upholding it. To this charge, a DOJ spokesperson points out:

There's a difference between a state or locality saying they are not going to use their resources to enforce a federal law, as so-called sanctuary cities have done, and a state passing its own immigration policy that actively interferes with federal law. That's what Arizona did in this case.

SB1070 co-author Kris Kobach also argues that sanctuary cities themselves interfere with federal law, in particular the 1996 measure stating that localities can’t prohibit sharing or receiving immigration status information with the federal government. But an analysis from the Congressional Research Service actually found that the 1996 law doesn’t require city agencies to collect this information in the first place, concluding that sanctuary city policies were in step with federal law.

In addition to this flawed law and order argument, immigration restrictionists use the undocumented immigrant-as-criminal angle to advocate for a sanctuary city crackdown. In the New York Post, Kobach claims: “The Justice Department's tolerance of sanctuary cities is not only lawless, it is dangerous. Cities that adopt sanctuary policies make themselves havens for alien crime networks…Sanctuary policies tie the hands of local police in a very real way.” Admittedly, this sounds pretty scary—if only it were true. Kobach completely and perhaps intentionally misrepresents how sanctuary policies work. San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and other sanctuary cities don’t waste local time or resources asking immigrants about their legal status. But neither do they let undocumented immigrants who set up “crime networks” or otherwise perpetrate violent crimes go unpunished. And let’s remember that living in the U.S. without papers is a civil, not a criminal offense.

Moreover, these policies don't “tie the hands” of local police. Municipal police chiefs have repeatedly said that they don’t want to target undocumented immigrants for status violations because it undermines their primary mission to uphold public safety. Instead, policies that keep local police out of federal immigration enforcement encourage immigrant crime victims or witnesses to come forward and help get criminals off the streets.

But what about immigrants who commit serious crimes? Despite what Kobach would have us think, sanctuary cities can and do cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s strategy to identify these dangerous and deportable criminals. For example, under San Francisco’s City of Refuge law, police turn over immigrants to ICE who have been booked on felony charges, have a history of felony charges or are subject to previous deportation orders. As ICE spokesman Matt Chandler puts it, "None of these municipal laws have yet interfered with our ability to make our streets safer."

We shouldn’t let Kobach and his allies scare us into thinking that long-standing sanctuary city policies threaten our laws or our lives. The facts speak for themselves. Instead, we must support sanctuary policies that help city police engage immigrants in the law enforcement efforts that we really rely on.

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Posted at 3:47 PM, Jul 30, 2010 in Immigration
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