Defending Sanctuary Cities

Posted on 07/13/17 by Andrew Schrock


The United States has always been defined by its immigrants. German arrivals dominated in the early 20th century. They populated large swaths of the midwest, while Italians and Poles predominantly settled in large gateway cities. When immigration restrictions relaxed in 1965, more arrivals came from Central and South America. These more recent immigrants now comprise nearly 15 million Californians, making them the dominant ethnic group in the state.

Over half of Angelenos now identify as Latinx. They define neighborhoods like East LA and keep our cities culturally and fiscally strong. As the debate about “sanctuary cities” gains momentum, data providers need to think about obligations to residents. How to empower immigrant residents and the non-profit organizations that support them? What does it mean to be a “data commons” in a sanctuary city?

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of “sanctuary city.” However, the spatial connotations of the term sanctuary has ancient origins. In Greek times the term ἀσυλία (asulia) referred to areas surrounding temples. They were sacred spaces free of conflict, so weapons were to be left at the door. The Christian Bible’s Old Testament referred to “cities of refuge” where the persecuted received protection. Churches in the middle ages offered sanctuary to those in need of aid. To this day, churches remain a safe space, spiritually protected from outside forces. It is rare for an immigration officer to detain a resident in a house of worship. The term was revived by the sanctuary movement in the 1980s out of a concern for immigrant rights. Central American governments in El Salvador and Guatemala frequently used violence to control their citizens, and paramilitary death squads were not uncommon. Fleeing residents often made their way north to the United States to claim asylum, but the federal government rarely recognized those claims.

At the time, the United States government was financially supporting these same repressive regimes, and Salvadorans and Guatemalans were viewed as “economic migrants”—a classification that was unlikely to result in legal residency. Immigration staff were also overwhelmed with refugees from other parts of the world such as Iran. As a result, fewer than 3% of applications for asylum from Salvadorans and Guatemalans were approved. A network of churches sympathetic to their causes—valuing human rights over federal laws—responded by offering safe haven. Hundreds of these churches operated as a kind of underground railroad for refugees.

In today’s world, the sanctuary debate has grown and now also operates at the city level. “This movement conceives of sanctuary not simply as a church-based site where asylum seekers may be secured,” wrote Jennifer Bagelman. It “offers a host of welcoming practices within and beyond cities.” Bagelman describes the sanctuary cities movement as a difficult compromise. On one hand, it offers protection to new arrivals, on the other, it can make it difficult for new arrivals to integrate into society. This problem has been exacerbated by escalating tensions between federal and local levels of government.

Local police in sanctuary cities adhere to the letter of the law, and they share fingerprint data with the federal bureau of investigations (FBI). However, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can request that a suspect be detained, local police are under no obligation to comply. Los Angeles Police Department’s 1979 Special Order #40 states “Officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person.” The city reasoned that undocumented residents might be reluctant to communicate with police should they be the victim of a crime or witness to a crime. In fact, LA Police Chief Charlie Beck has asked immigration enforcement officers to stop identifying themselves as “police.”

The current administration follows a logic of supporting a respectful and trusting relationship between law enforcement officers and residents. “The LAPD will never be a deportation force,” said Eric Garcetti at a 2017 May Day event. “Working people who have built their lives in this country deserve protection, compassion, and equal justice.” The local non-profit Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) was more direct, stating that “Trump… has chosen cruelty over compassion.”

Indeed, the federal government has decided to pursue a different strategy. Once Trump assumed office, he set up a the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) in the Department of Homeland Security. A hotline for “victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens” followed (which was mostly jammed with fake reports of extraterrestrials). He has forged ahead with legislation to withhold federal grants to self-declared sanctuary cities and hire thousands more Immigration officers. Trump appears to be ramping up earlier Obama administration efforts that critics assert were already bullish on deportations.

A data commons provides an agnostic picture of its community. And the data available for LA County presents a markedly different picture than the one the Trump administration has advanced. In fact, research indicates that immigrants help support counties like Los Angeles. UC San Diego Political Science professor Tom K. Wong analyzed county-level data from across the United States. Using a federal dataset he demonstrated that counties classified as “sanctuaries” were healthier than others with higher employment and lower crime. What’s more, residents of sanctuary cities received less public assistance. Wong concluded, “when local law enforcement focuses on keeping communities safe, rather than becoming entangled in federal immigration enforcement efforts, communities are safer.”

Cities are stronger when they foster improved relationships with new arrivals to the country. The ancient definition of “sanctuary” implied protection. Data can function as an impetus to foster progressive social change; however, not all data is wise to share. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Executive Directive #20 consciously considered data's potential for harm when it underscored, “no City employee shall collect information regarding a person's citizenship or immigration status.” While that directive used the term “refuge” rather than sanctuary, the stance is clear. A robust picture of life in Los Angeles county acknowledges positive cultural assets as well as areas of vulnerability.

Data can even be used to empower residents and community groups interested in immigration reform. Former Knight Fellow Claudia Nunez started the group Migrahack in Los Angeles to connect data journalists and analysts with young people of color. It successfully expanded to over 20 cities across the country, paralleling similar efforts such as MIT’s UnDocuTech. The City of Los Angeles has also run a series of immigration rights hackathons. Some of which hatched innovative apps, like the one to help immigrants navigate confusing legal forms, and another that used data to direct new arrivals to friendly neighborhoods and social networks. Events such as these serve to produce more than just application prototypes. They are ways to get young Angelenos excited about civil and political engagement while also cultivating desirable technical skills in the process.

The Los Angeles County data commons can provide links to data that tell everyone’s story and hopefully increase civic engagement with that data. Through it, Angelenos of all backgrounds can become involved in data production and interpretation.

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