Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY TERESA CRAWFORD / AP
At a news conference last week, Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, tried to reassure undocumented immigrants living in the city. “To all those who are, after Tuesday’s election, very nervous and filled with anxiety, you are safe in Chicago,” he said. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump had consistently promised to deport immigrants living in this country illegally, but Emanuel, along with other big-city mayors, including Bill de Blasio, in New York, asserted that their cities—so-called sanctuary cities—would remain safe havens against federal deportation actions. As Emanuel went on to declare, “Chicago has in the past been a sanctuary city. . . . It always will be a sanctuary city.”
What these mayors didn’t say, however, was how their municipalities would be able to prevent the federal government from exerting its authority—and what they mean by the term “sanctuary city.”
The American movement to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants dates back thirty-four years, to the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, where the Reverend John Fife announced that his church would protect refugees fleeing the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. Because the Reagan Administration supported the regimes in those two countries, it was difficult, if not impossible, for Salvadoreans and Guatemalans who felt persecuted by government forces to gain political asylum in the U.S., and harboring them was done in open defiance of the federal government. Between fifty and a hundred people stayed at the church each night, sleeping on foam pads on the floor, or on the carpet in the chapel. Volunteers provided meals, legal assistance, medical care, and English-language classes. Over ten years, Southside Presbyterian harbored thirteen thousand refugees, and some five hundred other congregations across the country ultimately joined the effort. These churches and synagogues physically protected refugees in an act of open civil disobedience.
Today’s sanctuary-cities movement shares the convictions of this campaign of the nineteen-eighties, but the means of resistance are quite different. Christopher Lasch, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, who has written extensively on sanctuary policies, warns that the term can be misleading: “What people get all wrong is that they hear the word ‘sanctuary,’ and they think it’s about harboring people.” Unlike sanctuary churches, sanctuary cities aren’t pursuing a public act of subversion but rather a course of non-coöperation, telling their police and jail personnel to refuse assistance to federal immigration authorities in their efforts to deport immigrants.
For the most part, the sanctuary city is a recent phenomenon, a direct response to President Obama’s efforts to target undocumented immigrants with criminal records, a policy that led to the deportation of two and a half million during his Administration. Shortly before Obama won the Presidency, in early 2008, Congress approved the Secure Communities Program, under which the fingerprints of anyone charged with a crime are entered into a national database. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or I.C.E., can ask a local jail to hold an inmate beyond his release date, giving time for the agency to send representatives to take the person into federal custody. These detention requests became the federal government’s chief immigration-enforcement tool. (In 2014, Obama replaced Secure Communities with a similar but ostensibly less sweeping program.) An earlier initiative, still in place, gives local police and sheriffs’ departments the ability to have officers deputized to enforce immigration law. If a local police officer makes a traffic stop, she can ask the driver about his immigration status and hold him in custody if he is here illegally.
When these measures were instituted, communities across the country resisted. While most turned over illegal immigrants accused of serious crimes, many refused to turn over undocumented immigrants arrested on minor charges. And some refused to have police ask about immigration status in the first place. For some city leaders, the reason was simple: they opposed mass deportations, and they didn’t want to have any role in assisting the federal government’s efforts. But there were also legal considerations. Some federal courts have ruled that detaining a person beyond his release date amounts to holding someone without a court order, a violation of the Fourth Amendment. There were also practical concerns. Many police departments feared that a policy of arresting people due to their immigration status would discourage victims or witnesses of crimes from coöperating with investigations. Some cities also worried that it would lead to racial profiling. In 2012, there were a few dozen sanctuary communities; today there are around five hundred and fifty.
During his campaign, Trump asserted that on his first day in office he would cut federal funds to sanctuary cities. It’s a powerful threat. On CNN’s “State of the Union” last Sunday, Reince Priebus confirmed that removing “the criminal elements” and “people that are not good people” is still very high on Trump’s early agenda. But none of the sanctuary communities seem to have backed down since the election. If anything, some have become more defiant. Last week, Los Angeles’s police chief, Charlie Beck, told the Los Angeles Times, “We are not going to engage in law enforcement activities solely based on somebody’s immigration status. We are not going to work in conjunction with Homeland Security on deportation efforts. That is not our job, nor will I make it our job.”
Trump has not been clear about how he intends to round up undocumented immigrants with criminal records (nor has he indicated what kind of criminal record would warrant deportation), but the sanctuary cities will undoubtedly complicate those efforts. Without the coöperation of local law enforcement, finding immigrants would be a difficult task. Lasch, the law professor, suggests that, “short of creating a huge deportation force, President Trump won’t have any hope of making good on his promise of deporting two to three million people” without the help of local police. Currently, there are only fifty-eight hundred I.C.E. agents nationwide.
Nonetheless, there is only so much protection that sanctuary cities can offer. There’s nothing to keep federal agents from, say, conducting a raid at a factory or an individual residence within a sanctuary city.
John Fife, of Southside Presbyterian, is retired now, and I reached him by phone at his home, in Tucson. He told me that over these past couple of weeks he has fielded dozens of phone calls from churches, universities, and cities about the movement of the nineteen-eighties, with callers wanting to know how the sanctuaries worked and how hard it was to actively defy the federal government.
In recounting those years, Fife explained, “We had no middle ground between collaboration and resistance.” Fife openly challenged authorities, draping the church in a banner addressing the government: “Immigration: Do not profane the sanctuary of God.”
The Reagan Administration, wanting to avoid a public confrontation, never sent federal law enforcement into sanctuary churches. But, in 1985, the Department of Justice did bring criminal-conspiracy charges against sixteen Arizona sanctuary activists, including Fife. Eight were found guilty, though no one served prison time. By 1992, with the peace accords in Central America, the sanctuary movement had run its course. Roughly half a million Central Americans won legal status.
“Folks are asking, ‘How can we prepare if we need to protect these families?’ “ Fife told me. “I tell them what we did. How necessary that will be today, we’ll have to wait and see.”