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Sanctuary cities fight back against new immigration restrictions

New state laws, and a potential shift in the federal budget, have cities pushing back against immigration crackdown

Immigrants, from left, Birchat Kedir, of Ethiopia, Olivia Meyerhoffer of France and Mariama Cire Sylla, of Guinea, have their photo taken at an immigration rally on the Boston Common during the 21st annual Immigrants' Day at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Apr. 5, 201
Getty Images

For mayors and law enforcement officials in so-called sanctuary cities—municipalities that have refused to enforce federal immigration laws—the last few weeks have been a policy rollercoaster with legal battles brewing in statehouses across the country.

Now the situation seems poised to get more contentious for the more than 300 jurisdictions nationwide resisting the call for a crackdown. A recent shoving match on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives may be just the beginning.

According to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who is at the center of the Texas battle over the newly passed SB4, a state bill signed into law May 7 which forces local government officials and law enforcement to be much more aggressive about checking immigration status, these types of laws override local control, and prevent cities from enacting policies they believe are in their best interest.

“In this state and in other states, there’s a movement towards denying the individual liberty that is expressed in people’s votes and their local elected officials,” Adler told Curbed. “I believe the government that is closest to the people is best able to represent the will of the people. “

Legal wins for sanctuary cities

Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like the push against sanctuary cities had been significantly weakened. On May 22, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a memo that finally offered a detailed definition of a sanctuary city: “those that violate a federal law requiring local and state governments to share information with federal officials about immigrants’ citizenship or legal status.”

A map of sanctuary jurisdictions across the U.S., as of March 2017
Center for Immigration Studies

The memo came on the heels of a ruling by a California judge that halted President Donald Trump’s earlier executive order seeking to strip federal funds from sanctuary cities, arguing that only Congress can change the way federal grants are dispersed. In addition, New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, along with colleagues from from four states and the District of Columbia, released a report that asserted local jurisdictions were within the letter of the law carrying on business as usual and ignoring recommendations from the Trump administration.

A statement from the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force in support of the report, which represents 60 sheriffs, police commissioners, and police chiefs from around the country, noted that “immigration enforcement on the state and local level diverts limited resources from public safety and undermines trust within immigrant communities.”

“Local police departments should not and cannot be forced to shatter the trust and credibility they’ve built with their communities just to advance President Trump’s radical deportation agenda,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

New challenges to local jurisdiction

Sessions’ statement provided some much-needed clarity for cities; for example, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the city had been compliant all along according to this definition. But according to Adler, now that Sessions has presented a legal framework suggesting the federal government doesn’t have as much power to withhold funds and punish sanctuary cities as once thought, politicians in favor of a crackdown are moving to pass new laws that “make the reality fit the rhetoric.”

The attorney general’s memo suggested that in the future, grants could be tailored to reward (and punish) cities based on compliance with immigration initiatives. Trump’s budget draft also includes an appendix that would give the federal government more power to restrict funds. The ultimate goal of these moves is to get cities to hold detainees in local custody long enough for federal law enforcement to check their immigration status.

Austin’s 'Day Without Immigrants' protest from February.
Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

Adler argues that this type of detention would make Austin, and other cities, much less safe since the immigrant population, fearful of legal troubles or expulsion, would be wary of talking to the local police. Austin’s law enforcement officials have made an effort to reach out specifically to the Hispanic community to dispel myths, he says, and the current back-and-forth between local and federal leaders is only causing more uncertainty.

“The Hispanic population is as confused as we are about what’s true and not true,” he said. “We’re trying to be as vocal as we can be, but we get trumped by state and federal law, so there’s perhaps limits to whether a local community can decide on what will keep us most safe. We’re trying to be as vocal and visible as possible.”

Cities are battling against states

For Adler, the disagreement isn’t just with the feds. The Texas legislature’s recent passage of SB4 not only pushes for more aggressive immigration enforcement by local officials, but advocates punishment for local officials who don’t enforce the law. Even though SB4 won’t officially go into effect until September, supporters wasted no time in using its provisions. Adler, in fact, has preemptively been sued by the state’s attorney general in anticipation that he won’t enforce the law. (Adler has already filed a motion to dismiss the pre-emptive lawsuit.)

“We think this is unconstitutional and unenforceable,” he says.

Others agree. Within days of SB4 being passed, cities across Texas as well as immigrants’ rights groups all filed lawsuits against the bill. But their pushback faces steep legal hurdles. As Huyen Pham, a professor of immigration law at Texas A&M University, told The Nation, when the debate is between cities and states instead of states and the federal government, 10th Amendment protection against pre-emption goes out the window.

“This is a new legal frontier,” Pham says. “It’s really local government law’s moment to shine.”

Mayors and local officials nationwide are taking note, according to Adler, especially since more than 50 similar measures are being debated in statehouses around the country. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is working on the issue, and many local leaders have been discussing and debating strategy. Supporters are keeping an eye on pending decisions on the president’s executive order, as well as the fate of the budget and state laws like the one in Texas.

Adler feels the policy debate over immigration enforcement is a “defining issue” for Texas and the U.S.

“Immigrant communities have low risks of crime with more welcoming populations,” Adler says. “It’s important to our economy, and we have a moral responsibility to immigrants, having effectively invited these people to work in our country.”