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Anti-Immigrant Frenzy May Not Significantly Impact Local Legislation

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is widespread, but legal experts say it’s unlikely to translate into more stringent local immigration policies.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced that he had signed a pledge not to run as an independent candidate should he fail to win the 2016 nomination on September 3, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: a katz /

On July 1, 2015, Kathryn Steinle, 32, was spending time with her father on the San Francisco waterfront when she was allegedly shot and killed by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant. Lopez-Sanchez had been deported five times from the United States to Mexico and has had seven felony convictions.

In response to this tragedy, many conservative politicians are vilifying so-called sanctuary cities like San Francisco – cities with policies designed to shelter undocumented immigrants from prosecution for their immigration status – for what they describe as the protection of immigrants who are living in the country illegally. Federal immigration authorities have also condemned local law enforcement for disregarding their request to hold Lopez-Sanchez in order to deport him to Mexico.

Shortly after Steinle’s murder, the US House voted to censure local jurisdictions that disregard federal requests for detainment. According to the new legislation, cities that refuse to comply with federal immigration authorities will be barred from receiving grants from the US Justice Department.

Some are referring to this new measure as the “Donald Trump Act.” Politicians have been fanning the flames of anti-immigrant fervor. In response to the murder, Trump stated that the Mexican government was “sending people who have lots of problems” to the United States, including rapists and drug traffickers. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) declared that mayors of sanctuary cities who don’t enforce federal immigration requests should be arrested. Additionally, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are currently fighting for a law that would ban various types of federal funding to cities that don’t fulfill requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The ban would apply to funds pursuant to the Cops’ Program, the Urban Area Security Initiative, the State Homeland Security Grant Program, the Port Security Grant Program and other programs.

Jayesh Rathod, a professor of law and director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law, told Truthout there’s a misconception that sanctuary cities are insulating non-citizens from being prosecuted for crimes, and that undocumented immigrants are more criminally oriented. “There’s a perception that somehow these cities are completely providing refuge for undocumented people engaging in criminality,” he said.

Rathod pointed out that the term “sanctuary cities” had a positive connotation in the 1980s, when the Sanctuary Movement, primarily composed of faith communities, was working to provide refuge to those fleeing civil wars in Latin America. “Over time, it’s morphed,” he said. Rathod argued that some politicians who oppose sanctuary cities have now appropriated this term, which once had a dignified history, adding, “Now many perceive this as a negative label.”

Currently, more than 200 cities in the United States have laws that prohibit law enforcement from detaining suspects based on ICE requests. Saira Hussain, staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said that the concept of sanctuary cities is largely misunderstood. “There has been anger, lack of understanding and confusion about some of our local laws and ordinances,” Hussain told Truthout. She said there has been pushback against sanctuary cities on a local and national level from both Democrats and Republicans.

According to Hussain, in the case of Kathryn Steinle, some have exploited the woman’s killing to blame the city of San Francisco. “It’s obviously a tragedy but it’s really unfortunate that the anti-immigrant movement has been spinning it to political ends. There’s lot’s of finger-pointing in the press,” she said.

The concept of “sanctuary cities” can be confusing because – as Kate Desormeau, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in San Francisco, points out – there is no settled definition. It’s not actually a legal term. “No city is calling itself a ‘sanctuary city,'” she said. There is a huge breadth of different policies, so it’s very difficult to pinpoint what that term entails. Some jurisdictions will have ICE as a nearly constant presence, for instance, and some will not comply with detainer requests from federal authorities. Desormeau says that 300 local jurisdictions are currently ending or limiting their compliance with ICE detainers.

“It has been clear that ICE detainers are just requests, not orders, and localities realized that. They didn’t have to detain people. In fact, it was actually a violation of their constitutional rights,” Desormeau said. Detainers ask for 48 hours of extra jail time, which can also include weekends and holidays. The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures and “requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause,” so these measures are considered unconstitutional. According to Desormeau, US citizens have been held in jail for up to three extra days, sometimes as a result of racial profiling. Some are assumed to be undocumented even if they posses an ID simply because they are Latino. In cases like these, both ICE and the localities can be held liable. “Our position is that ICE needs to comply with the Fourth Amendment,” she said. “We think states and localities have the right to say no.” Desormeau said policies should be based on local community wants and needs.

Hussain said the backlash against immigrants can undermine the safety of communities. “Anti-immigrant rhetoric is harmful to the undocumented. These people don’t understand the importance of embracing the community. Communities of color are disproportionately policed and we need to see that in the context of immigration [and] support policies that build community trust.”

Hussain also said the country must disentangle local law enforcement from immigration. “This will ensure that everyone has the same opportunities,” she added, and does not create “separate paths between those who are immigrants and those who are not.”

Though many current policies are problematic, Rathod doesn’t believe the anti-immigrant rhetoric is guaranteed to translate into stringent local legislation. “I don’t necessarily think we’ll see a crackdown,” he told Truthout. “I don’t think it’s going to be an overall trend. Restrictionists already tried that, Arizona already tried that … and it has been shut down by the Supreme Court.” Although there has been definite backlash because of the murder of Kathryn Steinle, he said, “what we’re seeing on the ground is the opposite.”

Instead, Rathod expects that local law enforcement will become more transparent about their relationship to ICE. “There will be more clarity to ensure the public trust,” he said. “They won’t want to undermine their relationship with the immigrant community.”

San Francisco will not be changing its policies in response to the Steinle case. According to Desormeau, it’s not guaranteed that the anti-immigrant rhetoric will have a significant effect on local policies. “A series of reforms were announced in November, but it’s really unclear if ICE has cleaned up its act,” she said. “We have no indication that they’re changing what happens on the ground.”

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