Biologist Edward Wilson once remarked that biology seemingly holds us “on a leash,” and though we can design and develop our lives, we live within the constraints of human biology. The beauty of a leash, however, is that we are tethered, not immoveable. For example, we still have implicit bias, but through introspection and exposure to different backgrounds, we can change our perspective and stretch our biological and moral “leash.” In my inquiry and approach to the purpose and legality of sanctuary cities, I find this analogy useful to answer the following questions: How much are sanctuary cities, counties and states acting on a “legal leash” with immigration law? When do ethics supersede the law?

I struggle with sanctuary cities frequently. I don’t doubt the many instances in which sanctuary cities act as safe havens for people fleeing persecution and bringing otherwise valuable workers to the United States work force, nor do I doubt we are a “nation of laws,” and those who undermine the law must be held accountable. The real debate with sanctuary cities is how long the legal leash should be between the federal government and local government.

Though we are familiar with places such as New York City, Chicago and San Francisco as sanctuary cities defying the federal government, the original debate was one between church and state. The initial movement began with a refugee crisis in the 1980s. During this time, Reverend John Fife of South Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. took in a few parishioners from El Salvador in 1980 who were fleeing the war and persecution from the government. Though he questioned the legality of his initial actions, he believed that he had a moral duty as a Christian to help those in only applying for asylum, not helping them cross the border. He began noticing the increasing conflict in Central America; because of the complicit nature of the United States as well as its support for the Central American dictatorships (the large majority of the guerrilla groups were socialistic; therefore the Reagan Administration feared a communist state in Central America and supported dictatorships as an alternative). Reverend John Fife began recruiting other churches from across the American Southwest in making a coalition to help shelter and support the thousands of Central Americans crossing the border. His legal defense became one of morality and his belief in the church’s tradition for sanctuary. However, after receiving national media attention for his coalition’s work, the federal government began to question whether his movement was stretching the “leash” too much.

During the movement, and today, section 8 U.S. Code §1373 (a) is quoted as a counterargument to the sanctuary city movement. The code is as follows:

“A Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”

In fact, Donald Trump’s executive order “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” used this clause as the basis to try and remove federal funding from sanctuary places.  Though Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled Trump’s move unconstitutional, the movement, in my view, has shifted from a religious rights to a states’ rights debate. In confirmation of this change, Orrick states the executive order might be an infringement upon states’ rights, writing, “The executive order attempts to use coercive methods to circumvent the Tenth Amendment’s direct prohibition against conscription.” Even after the ruling, the debate is continually “kicked down the road,” without many solutions on “how” we can fix the issue.

One partial solution is allowing immigration law to be amended by the states, not the federal government. The incentives differ greatly from state to state for refugee and asylum policy. If one were to compare the economic and social difference between Minnesota and Arizona with regards to immigrants,  it doesn’t make sense for these two states to have nearly identical immigration policies. I do not disregard the need for the federal government to develop immigration policy that ensures equal protection for immigrants, but a “hands off approach” to states and their policies makes more economic and social sense.

The “why” in the sanctuary cities debacle truly racks my conscience. When reading 8 U.S. Code §1373 (a), it is not difficult to see that these cities and counties are, in fact, undermining the law, without much reparation. However, as a person who started a refugee organization on campus named Refugees to College, I cannot in good conscience deny these individuals a place to grow as people. I think we should ask whether immigration law, to some degree, requires a suspension of natural ethics. How much can we extend our biological and moral leash? Before an answer can come, two developments, in my opinion, must take place in the United States with regards to refugee and asylum law. Firstly, the “leash” must gain a true meaning. At the moment, no side truly understands each other’s definition, if there is even one. The federal government, along with the cities such as San Francisco and New York, must define what “sanctuary” means.

I have often heard that sanctuary cities undermine those who went through the immigration process legally. However, many of these families, have been in the United States, undocumented immigrants, for decades (66 percent, in fact). It is unwise and ignorant to think that uprooting established families is a beneficial action for our global society. We have not only a moral obligation, but also an opportunity to extend our biological leash.  It is in not only our best interest as a country, but also as moral beings.

In 2014, an academic paper called ‘The neural basis of the interaction between theory of mind and moral judgment’ was published.  In it, humans are described as having an evolutionarily developed system for ethics.  The legal leash, in this case, does not take into account these behaviors. Our biological leash is often constrained by legal procedure; therefore, a discussion of the two must come to the forefront of national discussion so that states, counties and cities can work with the federal government in developing comprehensive immigration reform, especially with regard to sanctuary cities. 

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