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Are Cities Sapping Immigration Laws?

As the federal government struggles to find a consensus on immigration reform, a host of cities have passed ordinances or implemented policies ordering local police and other public employees not to ask about a person’s immigration status.

For example, the Houston Police Department’s Immigration policy states that it will not detain a person solely based on the belief that the individual is an illegal immigrant and officers will not ask about legal status unless a person is arrested and taken to jail. 

Localities with these policies are referred to as sanctuary cities, and according to the independent think tank Migration Policy Institute (MPI), there are now hundreds of them in the United States.

They effectively give safe haven to persons in the country illegally, say critics, who note that such a santuary creates, among other issues, a homeland security threat. Five of the 9-11 hijackers had immigration violations. And more recently, it was discovered that three members of the plot to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey were illegal immigrants (their city of residence, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is not regarded as a sanctuary city).

Jack Martin, special projects director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), says these policies are inadvisable because they create conditions that attract illegal residents to a community. He adds that the presence of a large illegal population “provides a camouflage within which criminal or terrorist elements may operate without detection.”

Critics further say that sanctuary cities are contravening federal law. Technically, the policies walk a fine line. An analysis by MPI does not find such “don’t ask” policies illegal. According to Muzaffar Chishti, director of the MPI’s office at New York University School of Law, although the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act bans localities from prohibiting employees from sharing immigration information with the federal government, “in most of these [sanctuary city] ordinances, the prohibition is only against asking.” Chishti also says most of the policies have exceptions for police dealing with certain crimes.

To close that loophole, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) recently proposed an amendment to the pending immigration bill that would have required local law enforcement to ask suspected illegal immigrants their status, making policies like Houston’s illegal. The amendment was defeated by one vote.

Police departments, though mindful of the importance of immigration laws, have reasons for supporting policies that prohibit asking about immigration status. Houston Police Department Public Information Officer J. Abad says immigrant cooperation is essential. “We cannot do our jobs without the community involvement,” Abad says.  She adds that if the policy were changed “it would tie our hands up, it would hinder our relations with the Hispanic community.”

Abad also disagrees with the term “sanctuary city,” saying: “We are not saying, ‘come here, this is a safe haven.’ We’re saying we investigate crimes, and we investigate the problems of the community.”

That sentiment is shared by the Immigration Committee of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of city police chiefs, of which Houston Police Chief Harold L. Hurtt is president. The committee’s position statement says “immigration enforcement by local police would likely negatively affect and undermine the level of trust between the local police and immigrant communities.”

But FAIR’s Martin disagrees, saying, “there has been no study that I am aware of that documents the fact that there is any greater law enforcement cooperation in communities that have adopted ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ measures.”

A relatively new development in immigration enforcement is something that could be called a reverse sanctuary city policy. An example is the Illegal Immigration Relief Act passed in 2006 in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. It imposes fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and revokes business licenses from any company caught employing them.

Martin says his group assisted in developing the Hazleton law, and he recommends it as a model ordinance “that the local community can adopt to discourage the settlement of illegal immigrants in their community.”

A federal judge granted a restraining order against the ordinance in 2006, and a trial was held on it earlier this year in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on a challenge that it conflicted with federal immigration law. A decision was pending at press time.