To hear the media tell it, you’d think that various cities around America were, for undocumented immigrants, like home base in a game of tag — just show up and you’re free, untouchable by law enforcement authorities. Such has been the rhetoric since the awful murder of Kathryn Steinle, killed on July 2 in San Francisco, apparently by a five-time deportee from Mexico.
For instance, the BBC News said that “San Francisco’s ‘sanctuary’ law means city authorities don’t co-operate with immigration officials,” the Associated Press referred to them as “cities that harbor immigrants in the U.S. illegally,” and CBS News quoted Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as saying, “I don’t think you can have whole cities or whole states just not obeying the law.”
No, no, and no. As usual for anything having to do with immigration law, so-called “sanctuary” is a lot more complicated than that.
First off, sanctuary cities don’t shield anyone from federal law enforcement. Immigration enforcement agents have the same powers in a sanctuary city as they do elsewhere. They can arrest and deport people in the U.S. unlawfully — in fact, no one can figure out why they didn’t arrest and deport Steinle’s alleged killer, rather than turning him over to local authorities for prosecution on an ancient drug charge.
Second, San Francisco’s sanctuary law is plenty strict on the topic of dealing with immigrants who have committed serious crimeS — it says, “Nothing in this Chapter shall prohibit, or be construed as prohibiting, a law enforcement officer from identifying and reporting any person pursuant to State or federal law or regulation who is in custody after being booked for the alleged commission of a felony. . . .”
What is a sanctuary city, then? In most cases, the purpose of local sanctuary laws is twofold:
- to draw a dividing line between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement, such that police and the like don’t automatically report or turn over undocumented immigrants, for the very important reason that, if they did, members of the immigrant community would simply stop calling the police, leading to a RISE in crime, and
- to prevent the sort of Constitutional violation that can all too easily occur when federal authorities expect local jails to simply detain people for unspecified lengths of time AFTER the 48-hour period during which they MUST hold an undocumented immigrant if requested to do so by federal authorities.
For a full, well-researched and reasoned discussion of the sanctuary laws and the Steinle case, I refer you to Cesar Cuahtemoc’s discussion on his CrImmigration blog.