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What does it mean to be a sanctuary city?

  • About 70 people attended a public meeting in Easthampton earlier this month hosted by American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts, focused on informing the community on what it means to be a “sanctuary city.” File photo



@amandadrane
Thursday, December 29, 2016

As the term sanctuary city buzzes around the nation, one undocumented Mexican immigrant studying constitutional law at Hampshire College takes issue with the designation.

Eduardo Samaniego said the declaration makes it seem as if municipalities like Amherst and Northampton are offering safe haven for immigrants like himself. But really, he said, all they’re doing is upholding the Constitution.

“They should be named Fourth Amendment cities,” he said, referencing the section of the U.S. constitution that prohibits searches, seizures and arrests without a warrant.

Sanctuary cities are generally defined as places where local police decline to cooperate with federal officials to deport undocumented immigrants who have otherwise not committed a crime.

Samaniego and other proponents of so-called sanctuary cities take aim at a recent push to rope local police officers into immigration enforcement, especially to federally-issued administrative detainer requests, which many argue violate due process.

“When local jails have people held longer without a warrant then they are violating the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment,” Samaniego said. “I as an undocumented immigrant don’t feel any safer (in a sanctuary city), but at least I know my Fourth Amendment rights are being upheld.”

To a certain extent, collaboration between local and federal law enforcement is mandatory — local departments must always scan and send to the FBI fingerprints of people they’ve arrested, whether they’re legal citizens or not.

But despite President-elect Donald Trump’s threats to defund those who don’t cooperate, departments are not obligated to seek out and detain people on behalf of the federal government, said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Laura Rótolo.

She said that level of collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement is voluntary — a legal gray area that some 350 municipalities nationwide are targeting with policies. “There is no legal definition of sanctuary city — it’s a political term, it’s not a legal term,” she said. “That term means different things to different cities.”

Not all so-called sanctuary cities target the issue of detainer requests, but many do. Northampton is one such city.

Rótolo said Massachusetts departments that honor ICE detainer requests, and hold immigrants beyond the time they post bail to allow time for ICE officials to come get them, do so unlawfully.

“In order to hold somebody they need probable cause of a crime, and an ICE detainer doesn’t provide that,” she said. “In fact law enforcement agencies in Massachusetts don’t have the legal authority to hold people on detainers in the first place.”

That’s why Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz issued an executive order in 2014, directing the Northampton Police Department not to honor non-criminal detainer requests from ICE.

“People ascribe a lot of things to communities labeled so-called sanctuary cities,” Narkewicz said. “But it’s a fairly specific set of issues.”

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said the city’s stance benefits community policing. She said it sends the message that officers aren’t out seeking people who are undocumented, and they won’t contact federal authorities.

“My job is to keep everybody safe,” she said. “I want immigrants to feel they can safely report crimes. I want them to feel they can walk in our front door and we will help them. To me, that’s why sanctuary cities are important places.”

That said, Kasper said the department is ready to help any federal agency find people wanted for crimes.

“We would help any federal agency who came to us if they had committed crimes,” she said. “This is one small aspect of a much larger picture.”

As for Trump’s threats to defund cities like Northampton, Narkewicz said they miss the point. “In my view it’s really a distraction from the real issue of reforming our immigration system,” he said, adding there needs to be more of a path for law-abiding people to gain citizenship. “My hope is that there could be a bipartisan effort to finally address this issue.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.