We are just a few weeks away from President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. Because he has promised to cut all federal funding for sanctuary cities on his first day in office, you may have heard many inflammatory and untrue comments about sanctuary cities on the news or on your friends’ Facebook feeds. So, what is the truth about sanctuary cities? What are they? Do we need them? Are sanctuary cities more dangerous than the average city?
What Are Sanctuary Cities?
The sanctuary movement is said to have grown out of efforts by churches in the 1980s to provide sanctuary to Central Americans fleeing violence at home amid reluctance by the federal government to grant them refugee status. There’s no legal definition of a sanctuary city, county or state, and what it means varies from place to place. But jurisdictions that fall under that controversial term — supporters oppose it — generally have policies or laws that limit the extent to which local law enforcement and other government employees will go to assist the federal government on immigration matters.
To be clear, these cities do not obstruct federal enforcement, but rather, leave this function to the responsible agencies. The term “sanctuary,” as used in this context, does not mean that a city or institution will conceal or shelter undocumented immigrants from detection. Rather, sanctuary policies might, among other things, commit a city to serving all individuals without regard to immigration status, protect the privacy of community members by keeping their immigration status confidential, or direct law enforcement officers not to investigate, arrest or hold people solely on the basis of immigration.
In San Francisco, for instance, a 1989 law called the City and County of Refuge ordinance prohibits city employees from helping federal immigration enforcement efforts unless compelled by court order or state law. More than 200 state and local jurisdictions have policies that call for not honoring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention requests, the agency’s director, Sarah Saldana, told Congress in March.
Do We Need Sanctuary Cities?
It is our belief that every undocumented immigrant should do everything they can to get their legal paperwork in order. Obviously, immigrants with legal permission to live and work in this country have no need for sanctuary. However, we know that most situations in life are not black-and-white. In over 40 years as immigration law specialists, we have heard countless heartbreaking reasons – war, domestic violence and gang violence among the most common – why people have fled their homes without proper plans and paperwork for life in refuge. We cannot rationally believe that mothers and fathers should be expected to stop and ask permission before they flee their home country in order to protect their children from immediate threats including rape or murder.
Once such people are living in this country, those who seek the legal right to be here may have to wait up to 10 years. In the meantime, they are considered to be “illegal.” These people may be intensely afraid of deportation because they fear returning to a home country where they have faced danger or were not able to feed their families. Because of this fear, undocumented immigrants live their lives in the shadows. They fear discovery by the authorities, and, therefore, they are less likely to report crimes that happen to them or that they witness in the community. In fact, supporters say such policies are widely supported by police groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chiefs from the nation’s largest police departments because they help communities unite to fight crime.
Are Sanctuary Cities More Dangerous?
According to an article on MotherJones.com, “Evidence suggests that these laws don’t just make cities safer for illegal immigrants; they make them safer for everyone. Take San Francisco. If we believe those who say sanctuary cities are more dangerous, then we should have seen a rise in San Francisco’s murder rate in the 26 years since it enacted its sanctuary law, and a further spike since 2013, when the city amended the law to cover even repeat felons such as Lopez-Sanchez. Instead, the city’s murder rate has fallen to its lowest level in decades.
We’re seeing a similar phenomenon throughout California. According to a Department of Justice report released last week, the number of homicides in the state fell to to 1,691 last year, the lowest since 1971. Meanwhile, the state legislature and all but a few counties have enacted sanctuary laws, though they vary in the sorts of protections offered.
It’s worth noting that crime has fallen nationwide in recent years, but San Francisco’s murder rate is also low compared to that of comparable cities that don’t have sanctuary policies:
Crime rates alone aren’t enough to prove that sanctuary laws make us safer, but other evidence suggests the effect on public safety is real. A 2013 study by the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago surveyed Latinos in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. It found that the increased involvement of local police in immigration enforcement in those cities had eroded trust in the legal system among both legal and illegal immigrants. Of those surveyed, 38 percent said they felt like they were under more suspicion and 45 percent said they were less likely to report a crime as a result—70 percent of the undocumented immigrants said so. The erosion of trust was felt most acutely in Phoenix, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has put strict immigration enforcement at the center of his agenda.”
Additionally, public schools and universities have voiced concern that more aggressive immigration enforcement will jeopardize student safety and interfere with their schools’ educational missions.
Ultimately, we believe the best route to economic prosperity and safe communities is to make the process of becoming a legal citizen quicker and easier, allowing for residents of this country to achieve their highest educational and work potential while also allowing them to feel safe in communicating and dealing with law enforcement officials. We must fix our broken immigration system, reducing bureaucracy and wait times for immigrants to get their legal paperwork; we must reduce the need for sanctuary cities.
In the meantime, if you or someone you know needs the help of an immigration attorney, please contact our highly experienced team today to schedule your consultation. We will do everything we can to make your transition to this country as smooth and easy as possible.