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Exploding the Myth of Sanctuary Cities

Congress is all set to crack down on “sanctuary cities” where illegal immigrants are supposedly free to roam. These cities do not exist in reality.

08.03.15 5:00 AM ET

Recently, less than 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, I had lunch with two friends—a police supervisor with 25 years’ experience, and a retired border patrol supervisor who spent three decades on the job.

We marveled that so many folks could—because of shameless politicians and a careless media—get so riled up over a concept that doesn’t really exist. 

“There are people out there who think there are cities where federal officials are not enforcing immigration law,” I said. “Basically, they think, ‘If I can get to one of these places, I’ll be home free.’ Can you believe it?”

They both shook their heads.

Conservatives have a new chew toy in the immigration debate: so-called sanctuary cities. 

The House of Representatives recently voted to cut funding for cities and counties that duck federal immigration law. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, called the vote “a start to the conversation on immigration.”

The conversation we need is the one that McCarthy, and other Republicans, are desperate to avoid: going after employers who hire the undocumented.

Instead, they rail against sanctuary cities. 

Supposedly, there are about 300 U.S. cities that give illegal immigrants a free pass from immigration officials. 

If you’re wondering what magical power local officials have to cripple a $60 billion-per-year bureaucratic behemoth like the Department of Homeland Security, hold the thought.

Some ordinances might bar local officers from cooperating with immigration agents at traffic stops. Others might bar federal authorities from ascertaining the immigration status of those booked. Others might prohibit the release to federal officials of any suspect who could be an illegal immigrant. The issue of sanctuary cities surfaces whenever an illegal immigrant commits a horrendous crime in a place with ordinances like these on the books.

San Francisco is one such city. And the murder on July 1 of 31-year-old Kate Steinle in front of her father, allegedly by illegal immigrant Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, was horrendous. 

The case against Lopez-Sanchez, who admitted to a local television station that he killed Steinle but claimed it was an accident, may be open and shut. 

But the larger case that conservatives are building against San Francisco—and other so-called sanctuary cities—is more complicated. The major unknown is whether local officials helped keep Lopez-Sanchez in the United States—despite the fact that he had been deported five times.

And now that Kate Steinle is a martyr for the cause of outlawing sanctuary cities, the whole case is overlaid with a thick and syrupy layer of politics.

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The trouble with the case is that, in localities across America, when you look at how local, state and federal law enforcement agencies work together every day to preserve public safety and enforce immigration statutes, what the right-wingers are all worked up about is more of a theory than a reality.

In the immigration debate, sanctuary cities are unicorns, mermaids, and Bigfoot all wrapped into one. 

You see, sanctuary cities ain’t what they used to be—or more accurately, what they were supposed to be. It was way back in 1989 that the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors voted to bar local officials, including police, from helping federal authorities with immigration investigations or arrests unless such help was required by federal or state law or a warrant was issued by a judge.

The rationale for the policy was that if an illegal immigrant was arrested on a non-immigration offense, and there was no federal warrant, local authorities could use their discretion to decide whether to alert their neighborhood office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But, in the last 26 years, San Francisco’s sanctuary policy has been repeatedly modified and become less lenient. These days, local law enforcement will hand over to federal immigration agents undocumented immigrants who haven’t even gone before a judge.

Also, in the last six and a half years, the Obama administration has been quite aggressive in roping in local police and sheriff departments into the enforcement of federal immigration law, using tools like Secure Communities. Under that program, which was only recently discontinued, local police would run the fingerprints of suspected illegal immigrants through a federal database to determine their status.

Now the administration is pushing the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which asks local law enforcement to notify ICE when it releases what local authorities suspect is an illegal immigrant—something that the Sheriff’s Department in San Francisco, which runs the jail, apparently failed to do. 

So it’s not true that the Obama administration is giving away the store on immigration enforcement. Sanctuary cities don’t provide much sanctuary. Those are lies told by Republicans, and apparently accepted as fact by Democrats. 

Even Republicans who are supposedly more reasonable on immigration issues wind up getting fooled. In a recent interview with Yahoo News, Jeb Bush said of the American people: “They see here in San Francisco, a sanctuary city, where a person who had been deported five times commits a violent crime—he should have been in prison to begin with—and was released, and this city does not cooperate with ICE. They see this stuff and they’re legitimately angry.”

Even Democrats who once supported sanctuary policies—such as Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois—seem ready to support a crackdown. 

All the while, local officials delude themselves into thinking that they can influence federal policy—in this case, U.S. immigration policy. They can’t, and they don’t. 

Words on a page certainly don’t mean anything at 3 a.m. when an illegal immigrant is pulled over for drunk driving, and police call Border Patrol to the scene. These declarations are especially meaningless to a federal agency like ICE, which is busy filling a yearly quota of 400,000 immigrant removals. And the Obama administration didn't rack up more than 2 million deportations in six and a half years by deferring to meaningless declarations by local officials.

Authorities in San Francisco are reportedly gearing up to cancel its sanctuary city policy, even if it may not have been all that it was cracked up to be. There have been media reports that, even under the old policy, San Francisco police officers would hand over to ICE suspects who were thought to be in the country illegally—all before processing them into the system.

I’ve heard similar stories about other police departments. Where I live, a police officer who writes a ticket for running a stop sign will call the Border Patrol to the scene, if the officer suspects the driver is here illegally.

My lunch companions confirmed it. The local cop said that, in his department, ICE agents go out on calls with police officers and maintain a presence at the station house.

So while radio host Sean Hannity recently told his audience that we live in a “sanctuary country,” implying that no immigration laws of any kind are being enforced anywhere at any time by any one, that’s crazy.

One last time: There is no enforcement-free zone where illegal immigrants can hide from the long arm of federal immigration officials. ICE agents don’t bow to cities and counties. They don’t play games. They are open for business, 24/7. They never close.