President Donald Trump, though his executive order on immigration released on January 25, 2017, prioritized for deportation any “alien” accused of or convicted of a crime. Since crossing the border without proper documentation and using a false social security number — as many undocumented immigrants do in order to obtain work — are both crimes, Trump essentially put all “aliens” on notice.
Understandably, this order has sent shock waves through immigrant communities. “Right now, the paranoia and sense of fear is overwhelming,” said Ramiro Orozco, an immigration attorney. “All the raids and the rhetoric… have created so much anxiety… people are pulling their children out of school, they’re not going to work.”
In the face of these threats to undocumented immigrants, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with the mayors of many other major cities, has promised hope: “We’re going to defend all of our people regardless of where they come from, regardless of their immigration status.”
Immigrant communities are left asking: To what extent is this promise legitimate, and on what grounds?
New York City, like hundreds of other cities across the US, has designated itself a “sanctuary city.” The concept of sanctuary cities came from churches in the 1980s that provided refuge to Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries. Over time, the term has evolved, but the core meaning remains. “Sanctuaries” provide protection to vulnerable people, whether they are refugees or undocumented immigrants.
The recent use of the term developed during the Obama presidency, when undocumented immigrants were targeted for deportation at a higher rate than in any other period in US history. In response to Obama’s policies, mayors across the country began to fight back against federal officials. New York City, for example, passed legislation in 2014 that disallowed the NYPD and the Department of Correction (DOC) from complying with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unless the undocumented person committed a serious felony or a judge signed a warrant. The NYPD promised to never “ask about the immigration status of crime victims, witnesses, or other people who ask for help.”
The primary purpose of this legislation? Public safety. Failing to protect immigrants would “make cities less safe. That is the bottom line,” Mayor de Blasio recently said. “If they believe by talking to a police officer they will get deported and be torn apart from their family, they’re not going to work with police.”
Safety was not the only inspiration for this movement, however. For New York in particular, where 37 percent of the current residents were born in another country, enforcing anti-immigrant policies would tear apart the fabric of local communities.
In lieu of enforcing strict deportation laws, New York City legislators have worked hard to defend undocumented peoples’ rights. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, has the right to public education, access to emergency and non-emergency health care, and the ability to sue in court.
All this is not to say that “sanctuary cities” are immune to federal deportation efforts. Nisha Agarwal, the commissioner of New York City’s Office of Immigration Affairs, recently reminded the public that, “ICE does have the ability to arrest people in public. People should know there are limits to what the city can do.”
At the end of the day, however, sanctuary cities should give undocumented immigrants an added sense of stability in their lives. They achieve this by refusing to cooperate with ICE, protecting the rights of undocumented people, and providing helpful services for immigrants communities, “We are a city of immigrants,” saif Mayor de Blasio recently, “and we – along with many other cities across the nation – intend to stay that way.”
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