If you’re driving in downtown Miami, Fla. by 333 South Miami Avenue, you’ll likely spot Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials waiting patiently in vans parked by the city’s Immigration Court. In a city that was formerly known as a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants, ICE agents now notoriously arrest immigrants who’ve had their citizenship or asylum applications denied the second they step outside the courthouse entrance. The constant presence of ICE marks a stark departure for a city that once claimed to champion the rights of those attempting to create new lives for themselves and their families in the United States. 


A “sanctuary city,” as one immigration policy blog writes, is defined not as a place that refuses to prosecute undocumented immigrants but rather a locality that “limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation, while still turning over those who have committed serious crimes.” This definition has even expanded to apply to whole states that have adopted the “sanctuary” stance as formal state policy, such as California and Vermont. Progressives have often championed “sanctuary cities” as a way to subtly resist President Donald Trump’s new crackdowns on both legal and “illegal” flows of immigration, but there is room for doubt about the effectiveness of these local efforts. 


There are a few reasons to be suspicious of sanctuary cities’ real ability to provide a safe home for immigrants. First, local governments that claim to be outspoken defenders of immigrant rights often provide ICE with the information it needs to track down individuals to make arrests and searches. In California, as many as 80 local law enforcement agencies share automated license plate information and sometimes biometric information with ICE. This information is particularly concerning given ICE’s recent shift to electronic surveillance as a key tool to seek and arrest undocumented individuals, even going as far as to track individuals’ Facebook statuses. 


Recently, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill that aimed to “protect (undocumented) people against … abuses” and broadly claims to strengthen NYC’s status as a sanctuary city. The mayor’s new bill calls for local law enforcement to limit its information-sharing efforts with immigration enforcement agencies. But there is currently no law to prohibit the New York City Police Department from contacting ICE about suspects or witnesses the police force investigates. Officers from the NYPD are even encouraged to share information with other task forces like the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Department of Homeland Security fusion centers. Furthermore, ICE’s recent appearance at a Manhattan church that served predominantly Spanish-speaking communities after the bill’s signing sent a clear message about the legislation’s toothlessness. As a professor at New York University’s law school remarked, “the mayor of the City of New York does not hide people under his desk … People get deported from New York all the time.” 


Second, federal immigration enforcement often undermines state and local efforts to wiggle around the current policy. For the same reason that marijuana legalization and decriminalization efforts at the state level often run into conflict with federal prosecutors, local efforts to provide a haven for undocumented individuals are trumped (pun intended) by federal policy. Even in sanctuary cities that truly do use every legal tool at their disposal to oppose the Trump Administration’s policies, the steps they can take are consistently limited. Local police can bar ICE from establishing an office in their precinct, as New York City did at Rikers. Or cities can ban city government officials from cooperating with ICE before, during or after raids, as the city of Oakland mandated shortly after plans from ICE to initiate several raids in the Bay Area were leaked. But in reality, federal immigration enforcement agencies still have the ultimate authority to arrest whoever they like and local resistance is often unable to combat the massive surveillance and intimidation efforts that the DHS and ICE conduct. 


It’s not like local officials in so-called “sanctuary cities” even have much of a choice in the matter of what policies are enforced. Law enforcement in those cities and localities often depends on federal funding, and the federal government has threatened to withhold the money for those programs unless the cities in question comply with ICE efforts and the Trump Administration’s immigration policy goals. The threat alone is often enough to coerce local governments into reluctantly complying with federal policy and reversing their “sanctuary” status, as was the case in Miami.


Political change at the federal level is necessary to truly ensure a safe place for undocumented immigrants. This is not to say we should condemn local authorities’ resistance to ICE, as many cities have made official policy, but rather acknowledge that there is still important work that needs to be accomplished. Indeed, while some legal change is urgently needed at the local level, it would be dangerous to become complacent with localities’ designations of “sanctuary cities”. As Camille Mackler, the legal policy director of the New York Immigrant Coalition, said to the New York Times, placing “a bubble over a city where ICE can’t penetrate is not possible.” 


As a student at the University of Michigan, it’s easy to be content with Detroit and Ann Arbor’s decisions to be sanctuary cities. Many homes in the city have “refugees welcome here” signs on their front lawns. But it’s also important to realize that the reality of federal immigration policy looms over any bumper sticker or lawn sign and has already had damaging effects on families and their communities in Michigan, even if some local authorities choose to turn a blind eye to immigration status. Until federal law substantially changes, no city can, in good faith, call itself a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.


Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu.

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