U.S. Sanctuary Laws Under Attack
Groups pushing to curb immigration have mounted a highly organized national campaign against local "sanctuary" laws that typically direct police officers to refrain from checking on subjects' immigration status.
Aside from a flurry of letter writing campaigns, immigration watchdog groups are also helping take sanctuary cities to court. They argue that the sanctuary laws encourage illegal immigration, undermine the rule of law and allow undocumented immigrants to commit crimes again and again.
In May, the groups helped end the sanctuary policy in New York City, the nation's traditional gateway for immigrants. Sanctuary opponents also gained allies in Congress, among legislators who believe the ordinances weaken domestic security against terrorism.
Many cities adopted sanctuary policies in the 1980s to foster trust between police and immigrants, who may be reluctant to cooperate for fear of being deported. Los Angeles and Houston have sanctuary policies, and San Francisco's sanctuary laws date back to 1985. The statutes infuriate critics, who see them as an underhanded way to block federal immigration law.
"Any nation has to have a single immigration policy," says Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.). "You simply cannot have cities and counties and police departments running their own." Tancredo failed in July in an attempt to cut off Justice Department funding for sanctuary cities.
The Washington, D.C.-based Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement, or FILE, has an effective legal strategy of informing cities that they are vulnerable to legal action because of sanctuary laws. The group works with like-minded organizations such as Project USA and American Border Patrol organizing petitions and write-in campaigns.
FILE claims credit for the scrapping of New York City's sanctuary ordinance. The law came under scrutiny when, on December 2002, a woman was brutally assaulted and raped in a city park by a group of men, several of whom were undocumented and had prior arrests in New York but were not deported.
A month later, FILE members dashed off a legal notice to city officials, and in February they testified in a congressional hearing on whether the sanctuary law had contributed to the crime. Now, the rape victim is bringing a $50 million suit against the city, and FILE is in contact with the lawyers.
In May, under increasing congressional and legal pressure, Mayor Mike Bloomberg revoked the city's 1989 sanctuary ordinance and replaced it with a weaker policy that in the eyes of many immigrants offers no protection at all. Bloomberg promised to revise it yet again after his decision triggered a hail of criticism from immigrant communities. He has yet to do so.
"We've challenged two cities so far (Houston and New York) by alerting them that they are not in compliance with federal law and that we'll seek redress for any American or legal immigrant who suffers personal injury (as a result)," says Craig Nelsen, FILE executive director.
Houston was notified by FILE this year, and the group is cooperating with a Houston police officer that filed a legal challenge against the city's sanctuary policy.
San Francisco is listed on FILE's Web site as its next target.
"We recognize that the pressure is on, both from groups like FILE and the federal government," says Heba Nimr, who monitors federal immigration agencies at San Francisco's La Raza Centro Legal. Nimr cites the USA Patriot Act and post-Sept. 11 federal roundups and registration of Muslim immigrants as part of these pressures.
Police cannot effectively protect diverse communities if witnesses or victims of crime fear reporting information to officers because they are undocumented, says Angelica Salas, executive director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles.
Salas says in cases of domestic violence, this fear is especially strong, since undocumented mothers dread being separated from their children and will endure abuse in order to not risk deportation.
Advocates of sanctuary say enforcing immigration law at the local level is logistically impossible. Conservative estimates of the undocumented in the nation run between 8 to 10 million.
Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton says it is not in the interest of a force already stretched thin to shoulder the added burden of immigration enforcement. His department instructs officers that they are not to act as immigration enforcers.
In theory, the recently proposed Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal bill (CLEAR) enmeshes local police and federal authorities in a seamless web of computerized data sharing so that beat cops can quickly determine a suspect's immigration status. The bill would require the federal government to pay local police when local resources are used for immigration enforcement.
This approach has raised fears of intrusive police powers. Duke Hipp, press secretary to Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), who introduced the bill, dismisses those fears.
"The quick emotional response, (that) this is going to turn this country into a police state, is very unfair. This is about helping state and local law enforcement folks. A lot of them already are doing the job, they just aren't given the resources to do it to the best of their ability, and this law would change that."
Marcelo Ballve is a PNS editor and writer.