Unpacking "Sanctuary Cities"

10/07/2007 02:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following piece is part of an ongoing series of OffTheBus reports by citizen policy experts critiquing different aspects of Campaign 08.

In the Democratic presidential candidates' debate at Dartmouth on September 26, 2007, Hillary & Co. were asked if they would "allow sanctuary cities to exist." (Tim Russert's odd locution, not mine.) The problem is the unspoken assumption that everyone knows what a "sanctuary city" is.

Like "anchor babies," the term "sanctuary cities" is the kind of phrase you can't really put your finger on, other than to say it has something to do with immigration and must be bad. It's a shame none of the candidates called a time-out to ask for a definition. Let's give it a try now.

The "sanctuary" part comes from the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, in which churches gave shelter to asylum-seekers fleeing the wars in Central America. The churches found scriptural authority for the practice in ancient Greek and Roman texts, and in the Old Testament. The feds, unimpressed by scripture, sent several movement activists to the pen for "harboring" under federal criminal law.

As the Central American wars wound down, the Sanctuary Movement cooled as well, but the notion of a type of safe haven for immigrants took hold, and a few cities enacted policies designed to keep local police focussed on enforcing local criminal laws, not federal immigration law. Many local police chiefs supported the idea, hoping crime victims and witnesses would feel free to rely on the police no matter what their immigration status. A typical example of such a policy is the L.A.P.D.'s "Special Order 40," (actually dating back to 1979) under which "officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person."

While many cities still have such policies in force, some (including L.A.'s Special Order 40) are under political and legal attack, as more localities try to fill the "enforcement gap" caused by the feds' failure to enforce existing law, and Congress' failure to enact comprehensive reform. These local efforts are meeting stiff legal resistance: so far most courts say the field of immigration is "preempted" by federal law.

At the same time, some states and cities have partnered with ICE in specific "287(g)" programs, named after the federal statute enabling the feds to train state and local cops in how to enforce some federal immigration laws. (A recent excursion on Long Island suggests more training may be in order, at least on the ICE side.)

Now, back to the candidates. If elected President, would they permit cities to continue "sanctuary" policies? (P.S., ignore the unchallenged assertion by Russert and Alison King
that such policies "violate federal law." They do no such thing, and again, shame on the candidates for not spotting this gaffe.)

Richardson: Yes.

Biden: No.

Dodd: Yes.

Kucinich: Yes.

Obama: Deftly avoided saying yes or no; would push Congress to pass comprehensive reform.

Clinton: Yes.

Gravel: Yes. (I think.)

(Here, you really need to check out the "Analyzing the Details" tool ginned up by the New York Times; you can read the full transcript, pinpoint individual words, and listen or watch the video, all at once. The Times has also summarized all the candidates' positions on immigration in an "Issue Guide.")

All in all, the few minutes spent on "Sanctuary Cities" at Dartmouth shed neither light nor heat, and that's probably just what the front-runners intended.

Alex Koppelman just posted a long piece to detailing pending bills in Congress that would strip "sanctuary cities" of anti-terrorism funding. While noting that "punishing sanctuary cities with legislation has a clear political upside," the cure may be worse than the disease: "In a September hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, under questioning from [Ginny] Brown-Waite [R.-Fla.] about sanctuary cities and the potential effect of bills like hers, said flatly, "I'm not aware of any city, although I may be wrong, that actually interferes with our ability to enforce the law.""

This Just In: How far from the border do you have to be to avoid the "sanctuary city" tag? Apparently even Fairbanks, Alaska, isn't far enough.

Read more OffTheBus coverage here.