As the crackdown on immigration ramps up, so-called "sanctuary cities" have been at the heart of the debate: President Trump continues to threaten to cut off their funding, while progressive cities mount their defenses. But while sanctuary cities position themselves as a bulwark to protect undocumented residents' rights, in reality they leave ample opportunity for immigrants to be swept up by the deportation machine.
BOB GARFIELD: As Trump’s immigration policies dominate the news cycle, funding to sanctuary cities has been at the heart of the debate.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: There’s been a lot of talk about cutting funding for sanctuary cities.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Today, San Francisco became the first sanctuary city to file a lawsuit against President Trump over his executive order requiring them to comply with immigration authorities or lose federal funding.
BOB GARFIELD: To immigrant advocates, the word “sanctuary” might connote safe haven from the cruelty of the deportation machine, but that overstates just how much refuge they provide. Daniel Denvir is a fellow at the Fair Punishment Project. Daniel, welcome to OTM.
DANIEL DENVIR: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me first what “sanctuary cities” were meant to be and what they've agreed to do.
DANIEL DENVIR: Well, there’s no precise definition for the term but generally what they mean, at a minimum, is that a city or locality will not cooperate actively with ICE deportations, meaning two things, one, that they will not participate in something called the 287(g) Program, which effectively deputizes local jailers and police to actively enforce immigration laws. And the second is that localities will not agree to cooperate with ICE requests to detain immigrants who have been arrested past their scheduled release time.
BOB GARFIELD: And that's the illegality that President Trump refers to when he threatens to deny federal funding to sanctuary cities. Is it a kind of municipal civil disobedience? Is it flouting the law or something different?
DANIEL DENVIR: No, it's entirely up to localities whether or not they cooperate with ICE in these cases. In fact, federal courts have ruled in recent years that localities may be civilly liable if they hold onto undocumented immigrants without probable cause. So a number of localities, not just those governed by left-leaning Democrats, restricted their cooperation with ICE because if they hold someone without probable cause and let’s say they turn out to be a US citizen, which has happened before, then they could be held civilly liable.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so ICE wants local law enforcement to detain and turn over suspected undocumented residents and they say no and, therefore, Kumbaya, we have protected a whole category of residents under siege by the administration. But you say, well, no, not exactly. Why not, exactly?
DANIEL DENVIR: Yeah, if only it were so simple. I mean, I do want to make clear that it has been a huge victory for the immigrant rights movement that, beginning under Obama, began pushing mayors and city councils to restrict cooperation with ICE and cease agreeing to hold unauthorized immigrants at ICE's behest. But there's a program called Secure Communities, which was initiated under President Bush and rolled out nationally under Obama, and what it did was merge a fingerprint database whereby localities booking people into local jails share their fingerprints with the FBI with an ICE database, allowing ICE to identify possible undocumented immigrants. So whether or not cities are cooperating actively with ICE, ICE will be tipped off to possible undocumented immigrants at the point of arrest. Obama changed the name of Secure Communities to the Priority Enforcement Program, but Trump is now resurrecting Secure Communities in its entirety.
BOB GARFIELD: So if you're undocumented and you should wind up in the criminal justice system, let’s say in San Francisco, the sanctuary-est of sanctuary cities, large crime or petty violation, guilty or innocent, once you’re booked federal officials will have access to your fingerprints and may just come to fetch you.
DANIEL DENVIR: Yeah, even if you've been released, if ICE determines that you might be an undocumented immigrant there's nothing stopping them from tracking you down at your workplace or your home. And so, I think we need to expand the definition of “sanctuary cities” to include not just noncooperation with ICE but dramatically reducing the number of people who are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated in major cities in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I understand that cities can take it upon themselves to actually arrest fewer people for relatively petty crimes, but there's a certain policing strategy called Broken Windows, which is all about suppressing petty crimes in order to create a safer environment. Can you be a sanctuary and follow the Broken Windows philosophy, at the same time?
DANIEL DENVIR: No. The thing about Broken Windows policing is that its adherents never actually tried to just fix the broken windows, instead, going out and arresting people for loitering or turnstile jumping or whatever nickel-and-dime crime it may be. If cities are actually concerned with improving quality of life and lowering crime in poor marginalized communities, then they should start with fixing broken windows, giving people homes, improving the quality of people’s schools. Those are the sort of solutions that will have an impact in lowering crime, without the harm of unnecessarily bringing people into contact with the criminal justice system. Arresting people for small-scale crime isn't just a bad idea because it brings immigrants in contact with the system that can lead to deportation but because being arrested for a small-scale crime can lead to all sorts of nasty consequences for anyone who’s brought into the system. People who are brought into the system are more likely to end up in contact with the system again and again and again.
BOB GARFIELD: So what you're saying is in order for sanctuary cities to truly provide sanctuary, they have to make a policy decision to do the counterintuitive, which is to not arrest people for various kinds of petty crime.
DANIEL DENVIR: Well, I think what was for a long time counterintuitive is becoming ever more intuitive for a lot of innovative thinkers out there and for the social movements who are pushing for change in the system. I think we’re going to see increasing collaboration between the movement against mass incarceration and the movement for immigrant rights, and I think that district attorneys who insist on sticking to the same old law and order playbook are gonna find themselves in trouble come election time.
With Trump taking office, the sort of mass deportations that were normal for a lot of Americans have now been associated with his toxic brand. I hope that things that were deemed okay under, quote, unquote, “normal presidents” have now been shown to be what they truly are, policies that don't make our country safer; instead, they actually just lead us to have the most bloated gargantuan prison population on earth and lead to the deportations and separation of millions of families.
BOB GARFIELD: Daniel, thank you.
DANIEL DENVIR: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Daniel Denvir is a Fellow at the Fair Punishment Project and host of The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin magazine. He is also working on a forthcoming book from Verso about immigration politics from 1965 to Donald Trump.