I’m from Saint Paul, so I ought to know. Saint Paul was, famously, a sanctuary city. In the 1930s the city allowed organized crime to operate freely without threat of arrest so long as they promised not to commit any crimes in the city.

Nonetheless, two U.S. senators have introduced amendments to a pending education funding bill that would block funding to “sanctuary cities.” Their move comes in the wake of the tragic killing of a San Francisco woman by a previously deported man who had been released from police custody.

Today, the term “sanctuary city” often is used by anti-immigrant political candidates to conjure up images of U.S. citizen criminals languishing behind bars while noncitizens walk free simply because they are aliens. This is ridiculous. There is no city in this country where a person who is arrested and charged with a crime or who is subject to a lawfully issued warrant for their arrest would be released onto the street simply because they are not a U.S. citizen.

What fear-mongering detractors call “sanctuary cities” are more accurately termed separation policies. In Minnesota, these policies were developed by police departments – not by city councils or mayors – to carefully balance two important policing priorities: cooperating with federal immigration authorities while ensuring that everyone living in our communities turns to the police if they are victims of crime. They seek to assure victims that if they report a crime to the police, they will not be interrogated about civil immigration status violations if they have not themselves committed a crime. These policies help ensure that criminals who prey upon immigrants are brought to justice.

Although these policies are accused of creating “sanctuary cities,” nothing is farther from the truth. Nothing stops police officers from arresting immigrants who are suspected of committing crimes.

  • Separation ordinances place no restriction on a law enforcement officer’s authority to arrest people who are suspected of committing crimes.
  • They place no restriction on an officer’s authority to ask for identification and arrest people who fail to establish their identity.
  • They place no restriction on an officer’s authority to investigate immigration-related crimes.
  • They place no restriction on an officer’s authority to ask about and record country of birth.
  • They specifically authorize local cooperation with federal immigration officials on joint criminal investigations.

Fear of deportation too often prevents immigrants from seeking protection from law enforcement and impedes an effective government response to victims of crime. The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services notes that criminals are known to target immigrants because their reluctance to report crimes is well-known. Our research at The Advocates for Human Rights shows that human traffickers prey upon the vulnerabilities of their victims, including fear of deportation and that fear of deportation has a powerful silencing effect on immigrant victims of domestic violence. It is the obligation of the State to ensure that these crime victims can seek police protection, regardless of whether these victims are lawfully in the United States.

Separation ordinances help cities carefully balance the need to cooperate with federal immigration officials against the need to ensure that everyone has meaningful access to security of the person, due process, and equal protection before the law.

It is true that sometimes noncitizens who are accused of crimes don’t face a trial or sentence in the United States. But it’s ICE’s own practices – not community policing policies – which are to blame. Informal ICE detainer requests – at issue in the San Francisco case – have sometimes meant that people facing criminal charges are turned over to ICE before they go to trial, depriving local communities of the opportunity to try, convict and sentence individuals in the rush to keep deportation numbers high.

For years ICE has sent “detainer requests” to local law enforcement asking them to hold onto people who would otherwise be released for an additional 48 hours instead of seeking an arrest warrant. Why? Well, it’s certainly easier to send a fax to a jail than present a case in front of a judge.

But the detainer request is not just easier than a warrant. These requests amount to fishing expeditions where ICE gets time to interrogate without counsel foreign-born people in police custody to determine whether there is probable cause that the individual is deportable.

ICE is so used to circumventing the constitution that, when they actually already have a basis for a warrant – which they certainly did in San Francisco – they don’t bother.

Why have local communities begun to question ICE’s unconstitutional detention requests? First, this practice created an incentive to arrest people who look or sound “foreign” without probable cause on any crime, knowing that the individual would be turned over to ICE before any constitutional violation came to light. This is no accident: ICE’s early sales pitch to local law enforcement touted that ICE could “make people disappear” even when local cops lacked evidence of criminal activity.

This bad practice was exacerbated by the implementation of the Secure Communities program, which began pushing our detainer requests on a much larger scale. While awaiting pickup by ICE, local communities were expected to house detainees and to assume liability both for any injury that happened while the person was in custody and for unlawful imprisonment if that person was in fact a US citizen. In 2014, a federal court in Oregon held that these informal requests did not pass constitutional muster and violated the 4th Amendment.

As Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said in a recent op-ed, “we should not shred the Constitution in the face of tragedy.”

By: Michele Garnett MacKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of advocacy.

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