Sanctuary Cities vs. Trump: Who’s Really Breaking the Law?

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immigrant protest

Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

As we start a new year, the status of “sanctuary cities” promises to be a continuing flashpoint in the immigration debate. The Trump Administration cites the “rule of law,” and immigrants’ supposed failure to follow it, to justify its crackdown on cities that fail to refer undocumented immigrants who are arrested to federal immigration authorities.

But the president’s attempt to withhold funds from sanctuary jurisdictions doesn’t meet that rule-of-law standard.

Here’s some background. Since 2008, the federal government has sought state and local cooperation in enforcing immigration law under a program originally named Secure Communities, which allows police to check a person’s immigration status in a database maintained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), after he or she is stopped for a traffic violation or arrested for a state crime.

If there is a match, ICE asks the local entity to detain the individual until ICE determines whether an immigration hearing is required, and a judge will then decide if deportation is merited.

Those who support this program, including Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, claim states and cities must use Secure Communities to catch murderers and rapists. Trump issued an executive order deputizing state and local officers to make immigration arrests, and threatened to withhold money from any city and state that does not cooperate.

But ironically, according to four federal judges and a growing number of state courts, it’s Trump’s request that fails to follow the law.

The request flouts the rule of law on six counts.

First, the president seeks to punish “sanctuary jurisdictions.” But only Congress—not the president—can give or withhold federal funds.

The federal government’s lawyers understand the flaws in Trump’s order to withhold funding from jurisdictions. In one of the California cases, the Department of Justice argued that the federal judge should not enforce its order because Trump’s request is unenforceable and should just be ignored. (The judge didn’t buy that argument.)

Second, no one knows what the term “sanctuary jurisdictions” means. When John Kelly, currently the president’s chief of staff, headed the Department of Homeland Security and was tasked with penalizing such jurisdictions, he testified that he “do[esn’t] have a clue” on how to define a “sanctuary city.”

Generally, the term is understood to apply to cities and states that cooperate with the federal government on immigration arrests. But there are no means to define what a failure to act means. It could arise from a decision not to cooperate, but it could also be the result of a lack of opportunity.

That’s like penalizing a backup quarterback for not scoring touchdowns every time the starter plays; it’s simply not his job.

Third, the ICE database is filled with errors. In 2010, ICE detained an individual for three days who was in fact born in Puerto Rico, and therefore a U.S. citizen. This year, ICE agents erroneously detained Mohammed Ali’s son questioning his citizenship. They also detained a visiting Holocaust scholar for violating his visitor’s visa by accepting payment for a speech, not knowing that academics are exempt from that rule.

Fourth, the program is expensive. The federal government requires states and cities to pay for the detention of the non-citizen. Los Angeles stopped doing it after paying $26 million in one year. And when mistakes occur, ICE will not indemnify states or cities.

That means if a state or local police officer detains someone ICE has mistakenly determined is deportable, the state and city will be exposed to a civil lawsuit that seeks monetary compensation for that wrongful detention.

Fifth, even when predicated on correct information, a growing number of state and federal courts are finding ICE’s requests unlawful and unconstitutional because they do not relate to any ongoing or prospective criminal activity.

Living in the country without status is not a crime. ICE’s requests thus run afoul of the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that the government detain only people who are suspected of committing crimes.

Sixth, the program is ineffectual.

In the nearly 10 years Secure Communities has existed, only a minority of the millions identified have a prior conviction for violent crime. Around 12 percent of the millions of non-citizens identified in this program had been convicted of “serious crimes”, which is a category that includes both violent crimes and non-violent crimes of forgery, fraud, and non-violent drug offenses. Another 25 percent had minor crimes or traffic infractions, such as driving their child to school without a license.

And approximately 40 percent of non-citizens who were picked up in this program had no criminal record.

Under Trump, although the number of immigration arrests increased 40 percent from last year, no more than six percent of those arrested had criminal records.

That low number should not be surprising.

If someone truly is a murderer, rapist, or posed a real danger, they would be rotting in a prison cell. They would not be in the streets, afraid that an ICE officer could somehow discover that they overstayed their visa 20 years ago.

This logic plays out in fact. A recent study concluded that residents in sanctuary cities experience lower crime rates than their counterparts. The case of Kathryn Steinle, 32, who was killed while walking in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf area in 2015, was used by Trump and immigration opponents as an example of the dangers posed to Americans by undocumented immigrants.

But while the perpetrator was a man who had already been deported five times because of criminal convictions, he proved to be the wrong symbol. Last month, a jury concluded that her death was a tragic accident from a gun misfiring and rejected both murder and manslaughter charges.

Editor’s Note: In response to the acquittal, the Justice Department announced it would file federal charges against the man, and issued an arrest warrant.

Worse, requiring local communities to enforce immigration law is harming its citizenry.

Police chiefs and commissioners have been outspoken in their support of sanctuary policies, arguing they are critical tools to encourage crime victims and witnesses in the immigrant community to cooperate with the police.

Their concerns were well-founded. In the first three months of 2017, the Los Angeles Chief of Police reported that among all ethnicities, only Latino individuals had a 25 percent drop in reporting rapes and domestic violence.

Keep in mind that those with criminal records are not always the so-called “bad hombres,” to use the president’s notorious phrase. Minor crimes have been used to deport combat veterans. A drug crime was the reason to deport a 9/11 volunteer who helped clean up the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Misdemeanors, expunged convictions, and even pardoned state crimes are deportable offenses. And immigration law sweeps in old convictions, so that green card holders who are middle-aged become deportable, regardless of years of proven rehabilitation.

It is too bad that “sanctuary” is the term to describe the jurisdictions that opt out of this program, because it wrongly implies that cities and states are providing amnesty. It would be unimaginable for local police—while issuing speeding tickets or investigating murders—to double check if the driver, the suspects or witnesses had properly filed their respective taxes with all the appropriate deductions, and then detain them until an IRS agent could review their past tax returns.

But that is exactly what is happening with immigration, or at least it was, until four federal judges—and counting—stopped Trump for failing to follow the law.

Kari Hong

Kari Hong

The lesson is clear. Actual criminals are best apprehended and punished by state criminal justice systems. Congress should focus on fixing the broken immigration system that had last seen reform over 20 years ago, and local cities should spend their time and money on local matters.

Casting blame on cities doesn’t solve anything. Forcing cities to do the work of the federal government is truly making things worse.

Kari Hong, an Assistant Professor at Boston College Law School, teaches immigration and criminal law. She founded a clinic representing non-citizens with criminal convictions in the Ninth Circuit, and has argued over 100 Ninth Circuit cases and 50 state criminal appeals.

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