Term ‘sanctuary city’ is misleading to illegal immigrants

Many illegal immigrants may have a serious misunderstanding of the word “sanctuary” when it comes to the controversial issue of so-called sanctuary cities. One expert says the misunderstanding means some immigrants may have placed too much faith in their city’s elected leaders who make sweeping declarations of “sanctuary” with the net result being more friction between local police and the immigrant community.

According to an email obtained from the Seattle mayor’s office through an open records request, many illegal immigrants there apparently think that ‘sanctuary’ means that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is completely powerless within the jurisdiction of a city that has given itself the “sanctuary” label.

In the email, sent just days after the 2016 election, a local immigration activist warned some in the mayor’s office about the confusion.

“I attended a community event tonight and several people expressed that they were happy that ICE could not take action within City limits. I had to later clarify that this is not what was meant by ‘sanctuary’ and people were really confused about this,” the activist said. Later in the email, the author concluded that, “I am worried that some community members may be getting a false sense of security that ICE won’t be able to conduct enforcement actions…”

In the most general sense, a sanctuary city is one that does not cooperate with detainer requests from federal ICE agents when a suspected illegal immigrant is already in custody for some other criminal justice issue.

Jessica Vaughn, the director of policy studies for the Center For Immigration Studies, a conservative think-tank that describes itself as “low-immigration, pro-immigrant,” says this deep misunderstanding of the word, “could lead people to have unrealistic expectations” about their ability to avoid detection or interaction of any kind with ICE.

“It leads to tension sometimes between the public and advocacy groups and lawmakers and police in some situations,” when ICE still conducts deportation activities. Or in some cases, the city selectively breaks their policy of non-cooperation with ICE.

One current example of that can be found in Santa Fe, N.M.

A recent report by New Mexico In-Depth said that despite the city’s sanctuary declaration, “during the past two-plus years, (Santa Fe Police Department) has tipped off Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at least three times about suspected undocumented immigrants.” The story adds later, “the case represents a rare but not unheard of practice for a police department that reports to a mayor who has become a prominent figure in the national “sanctuary city” movement.”

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An immigration activist in Santa Fe remarked, “But when I read a quote from the new police chief saying, ‘We’re not going to turn anyone over to ICE unless they’re a criminal,’ well, he just said what Donald Trump said. And we all know that’s bulls—t,” illustrating how the misunderstanding of the word seeps down to mistrust at the local level.

The sanctuary issue moved back into the forefront this week, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying the Trump administration would “claw back” federal funds from local governments that didn’t cooperate with federal instructions on immigration enforcement. Days after that, a group of mayors met with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to insist that their cities’ policies were not against federal law.

Complicating the issue between the cites and the administration is the fact that the term “sanctuary city” still remains something of a nebulous term. DHS said a definition of the term is coming soon.

Meanwhile, some cities have been trying to change the messaging, calling themselves “welcoming cities,” but the change in branding doesn’t seem to have taken hold anywhere yet, especially where the national debate is concerned.

“They realize ‘sanctuary’ has become something of a pejorative now,” Vaughn said.

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