By GLORIA PAZMINO, CARLA MARINUCCI and SERGIO BUSTOS
March 27, 2017
NEW YORK — State and local lawmakers from across the country are descending on New York City today to consider an increasingly difficult question: how far can they go to guard their local immigrant communities from the threat of deportation in the Trump era?
Don’t expect any easy answers.
While backing sanctuary city — and sanctuary state — policies has become a political imperative for lawmakers in liberal-dominated cities in New York, California and other states, policymakers are quickly learning there’s only so much they can do to resist Trump’s deportation efforts. After all, there’s no precise definition for what makes a city a sanctuary, and there’s no clear answer to how far municipalities can go to enact protective laws and shield undocumented residents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Betsy Plum, director of special projects at the New York Immigration Coalition, argues that even the term “sanctuary cities” is a misnomer.
“For people that are anti-immigrant, sanctuary cities are places where anyone can come and commit a crime and there is no law and order, and we know that is fiction,” she said. “At the same time, sanctuary cities are not places where we can stop the federal government from entering and using information they have access to. We can limit, but we are never going to be able to stop them.”
Hardly a new phenomenon, the sanctuary debate has surged to the top of the agenda for many states and localities across the country in the wake of Donald J. Trump’s November victory, and particularly in recent weeks amid a perceived crackdown on undocumented immigrants by the Trump administration. The president, moreover, has threatened to strip sanctuary jurisdictions of federal funding for not cooperating with federal immigration authorities in detaining undocumented immigrants arrested by police.
The issue is a defining one for many state and local politicians. Earlier this month, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed off on an executive order barring law enforcement who patrol the city’s port and airport from inquiring about a suspect’s immigration status, expanding a policy that has been enforced by the city’s police department since 1979.
In areas of the country where support for Trump runs high, local governments have rolled back some sanctuary protections and voiced a willingness to cooperate with federal law enforcement rather than risk losing funds — though those moves also appear to face legal limits. A Florida bill to crack down on sanctuary cities was approved by a legislative committee on its way to the House floor for vote just last week.
And this week’s two-day conference at Borough of Manhattan Community College was called by Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the New York City Council, who has worked to carve out a position for herself as a national figure on immigration reform. Around 40 elected officials are expected to attend, including policymakers representing cities within states that voted for Trump, like Pennsylvania and Texas, where municipalities like Austin and Philadelphia are working to enact protective legislation.
Mark-Viverito told POLITICO the aim is to share best practices, compare policy notes and create a united network of cities opposed to Trump’s policies across the county. “But every city needs to be having an internal conversation with their legislators and their mayors as to how far they want to take this,” she adds.
New York City’s elected officials are facing an increasing demand from advocates, and the city’s undocumented residents, who want City Hall to do more to limit their interaction with ICE and put money behind efforts that could protect immigrants.
“Every single day there is less and less support for this administration and their policies which are making us less safe and people realize that. They are racist and stereotyping our communities and people really want to push back in whatever way they can, so cities are trying to figure out how they can fill that space,” Mark-Viverito said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio dispatched Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Nisha Agarwal to San Francisco this week to attend a separate gathering of 25 senior government officials from 19 cities to strategize and plan their next move. The meeting was organized by Cities for Action, a coalition of more than 150 mayors pushing for federal immigration reform.
“We are trying to figure out how other cities are responding in the current moment, how can we learn from one another and be able to then have a shared strategy – recognizing that places are all different and how we respond might be based on your geography,” Agarwal told POLITICO.
Immigration experts agree that no city in the country can offer complete sanctuary to undocumented residents, but New York City, home to an estimated 500,000 undocumented people, for years now has said it will not use any of its resources, including its police force, to help ICE enforce immigration law, carry out raids or go into people’s homes – in essence, making the job of federal enforcement officials as difficult as possible.
In the last three years, the City Council has passed legislation to remove officers from the jail at Rikers Island and to severely roll back rules that require the city to honor immigration detainer requests.
Immigration advocates are calling on the city to review current laws governing low-level nonviolent offenses, such as turnstile jumping, which currently exposes undocumented immigrant to deportation risks.
“We have people in our office who got deported for nothing but a fare evasion,” Hasan Shafiqullah, deputy attorney-in-charge of the Immigration Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society, told POLITICO. “The city code says that when the police stop me, they can make it a civil or criminal matter, so why not amend the administrative code so that fare jumping is no longer a conviction they can make it just a civil matter.”
Lawmakers are now pushing the envelope, legally, and going so far as to consider legislation that would bar ICE officers from city-owned public spaces and possibly courtrooms.
“Yeah, of course there [are] limitations and we have been studying that very carefully and figuring out what we have in terms of the laws that we already have in place,” Mark-Viverito said. “We are confident that our laws are legally sound and that they are within the purview of our authority as city.”
Advocates face resistance from the state Senate Republican majority in advancing legislation – already approved by the Democrat-controlled Assembly – that would designate New York as a sanctuary state.
“The State clearly could go further if it wasn’t for the Republicans in the Senate,” Mark-Viverito said. “The things that we are doing locally, all these legal initiatives, the funding the laws that we have put in place we could do here what California has done install these statewide policies but obviously there is no interest by the Republicans to move that agenda.”
Indeed, sanctuary advocates are watching closely what happens on the West Coast.
‘Waving a red flag in front of a bull’
In solidly-blue California – a frequent target of Trump’s barbs and home to the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the country, an estimated 2.2 million – officials have pushed back aggressively on Trump’s deportation talk, using the bully pulpit, social media, legislation and the courts to make their case.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti’s move comes on the heels of other high profile efforts, including Senate Bill 54, widely described as legislation which would turn California into a “sanctuary state.’’ Proposed by Democratic Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, the “California Values Act” would bar the use of state and local resources, including law enforcement personnel, from assisting ICE agents in deportation actions. De Leon’s legislation has won the backing of civil rights groups like the ACLU, big labor unions like the Service Employees Union International and immigrant rights groups like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
But critics warn that strident sanctuary policies could undermine the state’s ability to provide other services, given Trump’s threat of a federal funding cut-off.
Hoover Institution research fellow Jeremy Carl, who has advised Republican governors on key policy issues, likens the strategy to “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” and argues that it’s likely to cost the state dearly in federal funding.
“The main thing it will accomplish is making Trump’s policies on sanctuary cities more popular than they might be, while boxing in California legally,’’ Carl told POLITICO. “If their position on California is that they will stand in the schoolhouse door and defy federal law, it’s not going to play well for them.”
In the Central Valley – where studies show undocumented immigrants make up 11 percent of the workforce, and 186,000 citizen children have an undocumented parent – Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau has suggested the city pass a resolution opposing the de Leon bill.
The de Leon proposal has also been opposed as a danger to public safety by high profile state law enforcement officials, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and the California State Sheriffs’ Association.
Still, many mayors in California who preside over declared sanctuary cities — including Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf — have thumbed their noses at threats of federal funding cuts, and insist they will stand together in regional efforts to cushion the blow of any punishment from the Trump administration.
Some immigration and legal experts think the cities have legal precedent on their side.
“The idea of limitations when it comes to sanctuary cities has been overblown by the bluster coming out of the White House,” Peter Markowitz, director of the Kathryn Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law said in an interview.
And according to Markowtiz, congressional resistance could derail any Trump effort to defund sanctuary cities.
“The federal government cannot commandeer the resources of the states,” Markowitz said. “There is nothing in the law that requires states or localities to hand over anybody, nor could there be, that is why they have focused on the money — but Congress, not the president, decides how to spend money.”
The flip side
State legislators in Tallahassee are also following Trump’s lead, advancing a bill from GOP Rep. Larry Metz that would compel state or local governments and law enforcement to support the enforcement of federal immigration law, and bar them from having any law, policy or practice that blocks law enforcement from communicating or cooperating with federal immigration agents.
A similar measure passed the state House last year but died in the Senate. This year, the push by Trump on the contentious issue may compel the Republican-controlled Legislature to approve it.
But state and local efforts to comply with Trump’s immigration policies may also face limits, as demonstrated recently in Florida.
A day after Trump signed the order, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican who backed Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, issued his own executive order reversing a 2013 policy that stipulated the county would not indefinitely detain inmates in the country illegally. He was the first public official in the country seen as giving in to Trump’s threat.
Gimenez later said he made the decision because “it basically took us off the list of being a sanctuary city,” and he did not want to risk losing $355 million in federal funding.
Trump’s appreciation came quickly in the form of a tweet: “Miami-Dade Mayor drops sanctuary policy. Right decision. Strong!”
The tweet only fueled rage in Miami-Dade, where 55 percent of the population, almost 1.4 million people, are foreign-born. The county is also home to an estimated 151,000 undocumented immigrants.
“While Mayor Gimenez’ actions may make him a darling of the Trump administration, his actions will have devastating effects on families who may soon find themselves torn apart or indefinitely detained,” said a spokeswoman for Miami Fights Back, a coalition of immigrant, labor and progressive groups.
But a Miami-Dade circuit judge ruled March 3 that it was illegal for the county to jail suspected undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal immigration authorities. The county has appealed and is continuing to cooperate with ICE officials.
Regardless of federal-state law enforcement dynamics, some advocates say the debate, in the end, may come down to funding. Plum, of the New York Immigration Coalition, says that ultimately de Blasio needs to cough up city money to provide legal assistance to those facing deportation proceedings.
“The thing that no one can do is provide complete insulation from the policies and actions of the federal government,” said Plum. “The mayor has been talking a very big game to standing up to the president, we now have to see dollars in the executive budget — that’s where the city has a lot of power right now, the city has the purse and if they want to protect immigrant communities they need to put dollars behind those communities.”
Pazmino reported from New York City, Marinucci reported from San Francisco and Bustos reported from Miami.
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