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Is There a Sanctuary for Sanctuary Cities?

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San Francisco has yet again come under the national spotlight, this time due to a federal grand jury investigation into whether city officials violated federal immigration laws against harboring illegal immigrants. The issue has not surprisingly sparked a heated debate over the controversial policy. 

Sanctuary laws are not unique to San Francisco. In fact, over 80 cities and states in the U.S. have various sanctuary policies. These include Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Miami, and Houston. Entire states such as Alaska and Montana have sanctuary laws protecting illegal immigrants.

Ever since their conception, these policies did not sit well with the federal government and anti-immigration proponents. (Lunatic fringe groups such as the Minutemen are particularly outraged, and show their displeasure with “rallies” that sometimes draw over 10 people.) Actually, state governments have no obligation to enforce federal immigration policy. Immigration has always been the exclusive province of the federal government.  States can, however, assist the federal government if they choose. Most of these policies merely remove that choice.

Threatening criminal sanctions is a new and almost desperate tactic, and in some ways San Francisco has already folded. Recent developments brought intense scrutiny upon the city’s sanctuary law, some of it in the form of subpoenas. In one particularly troubling development (from a legal standpoint), it was found that the city was not reporting juvenile felony offenders, and then flying them back to their home countries. This particular incident might be what Northern California United States Attorney Joseph Russoniello hinted at when he intimated the city may be violating harboring provisions of Title 8 of the US Code. Apparently to Mr. Russoniello, deporting illegal immigrants is only OK if the handcuffs say “property of the federal government.”

Many believe this non-reporting policy led to the tragic San Francisco triple homicide during the summer of 2008. It was discovered that the suspect Edwin Ramos-an illegal immigrant-was previously arrested as a juvenile, but was not reported to immigration officials. Many believed that had he been reported, he would have been deported and the murder would not have happened. The incident was nationally televised, but missing from the news was the fact that San Francisco reported Edwin Ramos to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only months earlier on an unrelated charge, but was not asked by ICE to detain Ramos.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has promised to report juvenile felony offenders and stop flying juvenile offenders back to their home country without reporting them to ICE. Such a policy would not be a far stretch from the city’s already long standing policy of cooperation with ICE as to illegal immigrant felons, as the city did with Mr. Ramos. (It might also be a troubling breach of privacy for juvenile offenders, but that has gotten lost in the fray.)

Ironically, intimidating local officials with criminal sanctions may make it harder for local officials to fight crime and pick up suspects like Ramos. Policies such as San Francisco’s have evolved into important guarantees ensuring local citizen cooperation with police officers. Police chiefs across the country, such as former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara, cite the need for local police departments not to act as extensions of ICE: “There’s a real debate going on nationally in police circles, but in almost every large city I know of, police departments have the same attitude: We have to work with these communities; we can’t have them viewing the police as the enemy because then you get this ‘Don’t snitch’ policy.”

This Grand Jury may be nothing more than a not-so-gentle reminder to city officials that the feds have not forgotten about them. But local enforcement of immigration law, such as county police officers routinely demanding proof of legal residency from certain people, might sometimes conflict with local efforts to fight crime. Since ICE relies in large part on local police departments reporting apprehended illegal immigrants (picked up for other crimes), fostering distrust between local police and local residents may in fact hinder efforts to find illegal immigrants. If people in the community do not trust the police, it makes their job much harder. In that scenario, everyone loses.

Ken LaMance

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