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In Wake of Arizona’s Immigration Law, Cities Called ‘Sanctuaries’ Question the Label

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Sanctuary_08061-480x320.jpgProtesters in San Francisco call for an end to the city's "sanctuary" policies for illegal immigrants. (Flickr, Steve Rhodes)

Last week, Joshua Ray, the manager of the small town of Aztec, N.M., received text messages from a few friends and colleagues telling him to tune into a local talk radio program. He did, only to hear callers decrying Aztec for harboring undocumented aliens, turning a blind eye to illegal immigration and acting as a “sanctuary city.”

It was not the first time Ray has gotten an earful on the topic. In 2006, the Congressional Research Service listed Aztec and 31 other towns and cities across the United States as having “sanctuary policies” — generally meaning that they instruct local law enforcement to leave the enforcement of federal laws, like immigration laws, to federal officials. Ever since then, Aztec city officials have not stopped getting complaints from advocacy groups and citizens concerned about the city tolerating or even encouraging illegal immigration — and the calls have only gotten louder and more frequent since Arizona enacted a controversial, and now overturned, law requiring local officials to detain and verify the status of people they arrest and suspect are in the country without authorization.

Indeed, the Arizona law has turned up the volume on the politics of immigration enforcement in all the “sanctuary cities” — particularly given a spate of apocryphal reports indicating undocumented workers might flee Arizona for more welcoming environs. The debate comes down to the degree to which local officials need to enforce federal laws. (Even President Obama has argued the variance in enforcement is too great, creating a “patchwork” of rules.) On one side of the spectrum is Arizona, which in SB 1070 attempted to require even small-town police officers to ensure the immigration status of individuals. On the other side of the spectrum are “sanctuary cities” that specifically instruct local officials not to bother.

“It’s kind of like the opposite of Arizona: They don’t want to be engaged in the process of policing immigration,” explains Aarti Kohli, director of immigration policy at Berkeley Law School’s Warren Institute. “It’s a communication to their communities that, ‘We don’t want to talk on the federal functions of immigration enforcement, we’re going to focus on our local functions.’”

Critics argue these policies weaken the country’s ability to combat illegal immigration. “If the government does not want to enforce [immigration laws] they basically become ineffective,” Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for The Federation for American Immigration Reform told TWI. “If you make it very clear that the law will be enforced, a lot of illegal aliens will decide it’s not worth sticking around.”

But the “sanctuary cities” themselves often dispute the title, arguing the CRS report mischaracterizes them and noting that they do not have the resources to enforce federal laws. Aztec, for instance, maintains it is no “sanctuary,” and for months has led a campaign to shed the designation. City officials have asked websites listing Aztec as a “sanctuary city” to remove it. They have asked media outlets to stop referring to it as a “sanctuary city.” And they have performed their own public relations: When Ray heard the radio program, he called in to explain that Aztec officials do not protect illegal immigrants from enforcement, they just “don’t.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker told the Texas Tribune her city is “no sanctuary” in March, while Albuquerque, N.M., Mayor Richard Berry declared in May his city was putting an end to any sanctuary policies. Don Elder, mayor of Katy, Texas, said he firmly objects to Katy being called a sanctuary city because local law enforcement works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement “constantly.” (The lines of communication weren’t always so smooth — Elder said the city used to have trouble contacting ICE about suspected illegal immigrants, but with help from Rep. Michael McCaul (R) now has no trouble.)

He said he advocates harsher immigration policies, but he wants the state — or, ideally, the federal government — to act first. “Why would want to put an ordinance in there if our president doesn’t even back us?” Elder said. “He wants us free. He wants us wide open.”

Even cities proud of their immigrant-friendly policies object to being called “sanctuary cities.” Durham, N.C., a left-leaning city near Raleigh, voted this spring to ban travel to Arizona because of SB 1070. “Any designation of a ‘sanctuary city,’ I don’t know where that comes from,” Thomas Bonfield, Durham city manager, told TWI. The city cooperates with federal officials, and in 2008 joined ICE’s 278(g) program, which trains local police to enforce some immigration laws.

And San Francisco — the one city to embrace the title — also helps the federal government enforce immigration law. This year, it signed on this year to Secure Communities, a federal program that requires local police to provide fingerprints of those they arrest to ICE officials.

Many cities on the “sanctuary cities” list say they would like to see an update to the 2006 CRS report that started the trouble, picked up by pro-enforcement and anti-immigration websites and distributed far and wide. The list was altered once before: A spokesman for the city of Fresno, Calif., told TWI the city was incorrectly placed on the list in 2005, then removed from the 2006 version. (Calls to the Congressional Research Service were not returned.)

And ultimately, the cities do not offer any “sanctuary” anyway — the term is so broad as to be meaningless, immigration experts argue. More often than not, it is simply that these cities do not want to waste state resources on a federal responsibility. And the idea that undocumented workers might leave Arizona for San Francisco or Raleigh due to the label is also risible: Economics and family ties strongly dictate internal movement. “If there’s a ‘sanctuary city’ out there with a very welcoming environment that has no jobs, you’re not going to see a lot of migration there,” says Jacob Vigdor, a Duke public policy and economics professor.

Still, some immigrants’ rights advocates argue that city leaders are disingenuous in their urge to throw off the title. “It’s kind of laughable to come out and say ‘we’re not a sanctuary city’ if you haven’t changed your policies or practices,” said Marcela Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a group that lobbies for immigrant-friendly policies in New Mexico. “We’re trying to convince people that we’re not this random name or concept, but we’ve never thought of Santa Fe or New Mexico as a sanctuary state.”

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