In the chaotic din of Washington politics, there’s no greater dissonance between what’s on paper and what’s on the ground than on issues of immigration-law enforcement. Last week, Senator Pat Toomey tried to introduce sweeping legislation to “ban” federal funding for “sanctuary cities,” or cities that have explicitly restricted local police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Though the bill was blocked from the floor by Senate Democrats, community activists still feel the violent sentiment behind the rhetoric in Congress reverberating in their workplaces and neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment has taken a more passive-aggressive approach. The new Democratic Party platform offers bullet points on promoting more “humane” treatment of immigrants. The White House claims Homeland Security will “prioritize enforcement” to target real security threats—“felons, not families,” as Obama put it. Yet in the past few months, ICE has ramped up deportation drives that terrorize and split refugee families and communities.
In reality, the only thing consistent about immigration-law enforcement is that it has been consistently arbitrary. Advocacy groups have learned by now that they can rely on officialdom to recognize their rights, so they’re pressing for local resistance.
In Vermont, migrant farmworkers with the Burlington-based advocacy group Migrant Justice have tried to get one step ahead of ICE’s dragnets by campaigning for a statewide policy of police accountability. Last month, the group finalized a policy framework based on 2014 legislation aimed at ensuring “fair and impartial policing” and clarifying that agents “may inquire about immigration status only when it is necessary to the ongoing investigation of a criminal offense.” Not all the provisions are binding, but the framework sets firm anti-discrimination guidelines and curtails practices like arbitrarily detention after a traffic stop, or invasive “show me your papers” checks.
The framework does, however, offer police a loophole for “voluntary” arrangements with ICE to hold an already-detained immigrant en route to federal custody to face deportation proceedings. (Currently, under Homeland Security’s so-called Priority Enforcement Program, ICE may request local police assistance when it can identify a certain “enforcement priority” such as a criminal investigation.)
While still imperfect, the policies provide legal guidance to ensure that ICE cannot unilaterally turn any precinct into a local Homeland Security outpost. Migrant Justice organizer Will Lambek tells The Nation that, in communities that have seen many immigrants, including labor activists, terrorized by ICE raids, in an immigrants’ encounter with police, “it’s completely life altering, whether…you get to go through the Vermont justice system, like your neighbor would, or whether you’re going to get detained, deported, and separated from your family and your means of making a living.”
Activists say that, historically, dangerous ICE-police linkages have emerged in gray areas of state and local law around informal information sharing of immigration data. While the new policy helps restrict those more casual collaborations, the worry now is that some police departments will ignore the non-binding provisions, potentially causing even more confusion.
Some local authorities have passed more explicit policies turning legal gray areas into safe space for migrants. Philadelphia’s sanctuary-city policy broadly bars police from directly cooperating with ICE enforcement actions.
In response to the anti–sanctuary city policy proposed by Toomey, who represents Pennsylvania, and the Trump-infused hate spewed on Capitol Hill, Peter Pedemonti, executive director of the advocacy group New Sanctuary Movement, writes from Philadelphia: “The attack on Sanctuary Cities has nothing to do with safety. It is about deporting more people.” Noting that government-community relations have strengthened for immigrants, he adds, “In Philadelphia, our Sanctuary City policy has helped the city thrive and…has reduced deportations, made immigrant families feel safer to participate fully in the life of the city.”
In San Francisco, a self-declared sanctuary city for over 25 years, conservative backlash surged following a high-profile murder case involving an undocumented immigrant, which also inspired Toomey’s legislation. But local immigrant-rights advocates mobilized to push local lawmakers to renew the policy earlier this year, with some compromises for limited federal cooperation with criminal investigations.
Jon Rodney of the California Immigrant Policy Center says via e-mail:
There is profound frustration at the unprecedented, unrelenting deportation machinery the Obama administration has built…. I think the community pressure to halt deportations, to halt the criminalization of immigrants, will continue to push up—on local jurisdictions, states, and the administration, to enact and uphold strong protections on deportations.
The group is separately campaigning the state-level Transparent Review of Unjust Transfers and Holds (TRUTH) Act, which would institute similar policies blocking federal-state cooperation across California and require local government review for any cooperation deal arranged between local cops and ICE.
The term “security” has been distorted beyond recognition by the partisan clamor in Washington, but the most-impacted groups, who are also constituencies who are vastly disenfranchised by the political system, are not without a voice.
Jessica Karp, litigation director of National Day Laborer Organizing Network, says that over the past four years there has been growing disillusionment with Congress over immigration reform, “but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing people can do to protect their communities and to protect themselves. And so people are looking toward local policies and toward state policies, and part of it involves drawing these lines between local and immigration enforcement…. It’s going to be incumbent as it always is on the people on the ground to keep doing that work and to keep up the pressure.”
Ultimately, the climate and conduct of local police’s handling of immigration issues involves negotiating power on the community level, not what’s said on the Senate floor or in executive orders. New Sanctuary Movement activist Estela Hernandez explained it to her local officials better than any policy guidance could:
If Philadelphia stops being a Sanctuary city, we will not feel safe to leave our homes, or to live a normal life…. [Politicians] should put themselves in our shoes, to understand our sufferings, and should know we love our kids the same as they loves their kids.
Braving the risk of deportation every day, undocumented mothers like her have a different security agenda—one that, instead of waiting for cops to stop treating them as threats, empowers communities to protect the ones they love.