The US Senate is set to vote today on a controversial bill sponsored by David Vitter of Louisiana to punish so-called “Sanctuary Cities” by denying them federal law enforcement funds. The bill—a version of which passed the House in July—came about after the tragic death of Californian Kathryn Steinle who was shot in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant with prior drug convictions who had been deported previously.
“Sanctuary cities and the associated violent crimes by illegal immigrants are reaching a critical point, and we cannot wait any longer to take action to protect Americans here at home,” said Vitter in a press release. “There is simply no incentive for these localities to enforce current immigration laws, and my legislation will make sure sanctuary cities are no longer rewarded for their failures to uphold the law.”
Not everyone agrees with this assessment. The New York Times editorial board says the bill scapegoats eleven million immigrants based on the actions of a few and is based on the lie “that all unauthorized immigrants are dangerous criminals who must be subdued by extraordinary means.”
What Are ‘Sanctuary Cities?’
The American Immigration Council, whose mission is to shape a rational conversation on immigration and immigrant integration, explains that the phrase comes from the “church-centered” movement in the 1980s when many Central American refugees fleeing civil wars were denied asylum. Religious institutions banded together to oppose the return of the refugees to where they had been persecuted and this became known as the “Sanctuary Movement.”
The American Immigration Council points out that the term “sanctuary city” is a “misnomer when used to describe community policing policies which attempt to eliminate fear from those who worry that reporting a crime or interacting with local law enforcement could result in deportation.”
“Sanctuary cities” do not ensure that immigrants in those communities are insulated from any immigration enforcement action against them; their residents are still subject to federal enforcement actions and in fact, many “sanctuary cities” have enacted community policing policies to ensure that immigrant communities interact with the police and that law enforcement officers do not detain persons they have no legal authority to hold. Many sanctuary city policies came about after the Obama-instituted “Secure Communities,” which shared information between state and local law enforcement and federal authorities, and “shattered trust” between immigrant populations and law enforcement agencies.
Tom Manger, Chief of Police for Montgomery County and President of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, explains:
To do our job we must have the trust and respect of the communities we serve. We fail if the public fears their police and will not come forward when we need them. Whether we seek to stop child predators, drug dealers, rapists or robbers—we need the full cooperation of victims and witness. Cooperation is not forthcoming from persons who see their police as immigration agents. When immigrants come to view their local police and sheriffs with distrust because they fear deportation, it creates conditions that encourage criminals to prey upon victims and witnesses alike.
What Does the Bill Do?
The Stop Sanctuary Policies and Protect Americans Act proposes to withhold certain funds and grants from “sanctuary jurisdictions” and require that these funds are re-allocated to other jurisdictions that allow local law enforcement to cooperate with federal policies, among other things, and includes “Kate’s Law,” which establishes a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for undocumented immigrants who are convicted of re-entering the US after being convicted of an aggravated felony or being convicted of having illegally re-entered the US twice prior.
While co-sponsor Pat Toomey calls the bill “commonsense legislation” to protect Americans, the New York Times argues that “sanctuary city” policies perform an important function by ensuring that law-abiding immigrants don’t fear and shun the police, and allowing them to be a productive part of the community in which they reside. “The answer to an immigrant population in the shadows is — as it has been throughout our history — integration and welcome instead of scapegoating and oppression,” the New York Times states. “And leaving local law enforcement free to focus on catching criminals and protecting public safety.