About those 'sanctuary cities'

by Christiaan Mader

The term is out-of-date and out-of-context, but not out-of-the-ordinary for Leger's campaign.

Leger shares map by anti-immigration group on his FB
Chad Leger for Sheriff Facebook Page

In September of 2014, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), notifying the federal agency that LPSO would not detain booked offenders beyond their sentence without judicial signature or probable cause. ICE routinely sends detainment requests to jurisdictions throughout the United States when it suspects an agency is holding an undocumented migrant. These requests are not binding. They bear no legal authority or teeth. But what they often pose to police jurisdictions is a threat of a civil suit in the event that an offender held past a court-ordered sentence turns out be a U.S. citizen or otherwise legal resident.

In the weeks prior to the policy change, LPSO had released two offenders to ICE’s custody. Shortly following the notification, it released three more. Because of that letter, Lafayette Parish was added to anti-immigration think-tank Center for Immigration Studies’ list of “sanctuary cities” a year later. Because that happened during an increasingly acrid campaign season, a non-issue was born.

Before we get too far, let’s begin with one very serious misunderstanding — that Lafayette is currently under imminent threat of a flood of undocumented criminal offenders in our streets. Contrary to intimations by our city marshal, Brian Pope, and the sheriff’s candidate he supports, Chad Leger, Lafayette has not seen an appreciable rise in violent crime, despite obvious high-profile cases.

According to the most recent data by the FBI (a report from 2012), Lafayette’s uniform crime rate has remained static since 2006. LPSO’s policies concerning booking misdemeanor offenses, namely not booking traffic violations, have been in place for 10 years and have had no correlative effect on those statistics. As for communication with ICE and the supposed handcuffing of patrol officers in the dispensation of their duty to round up immigrants, there’s not much to that claim.

LPSO Director of Corrections Rob Reardon says that the sheriff’s department has not stopped communicating with ICE, and has continued to identify potentially undocumented migrants to that agency. The implications of Pope’s and Leger’s attacks on LPSO’s policy is that the local sheriff’s office has become uncooperative with federal authority, which Reardon denies.

Recent changes in federal policy concerning immigration policing include the establishment of the Priority Enforcement Program, a non-binding procedural program that seeks to narrow and replace the previously broadly applied Secure Communities program, introduced by the Bush administration, that had many jurisdictions opt out of direct federal cooperation.

This gets kind of wonky, but the gist here is that, between 2008 and 2014, the Feds asked local agencies to honor any detainment request coming from ICE, regardless of the gravity of the booking offense. Decisions by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that ICE requests were non-binding, thus agencies receiving them were not required by law to comply. Subsequently, many more communities began to deny those detainment requests, specifically when a misdemeanor offense was involved. Others opted out simply because it made community policing too difficult, with immigrant populations once again in persistent fear of deportation by any authority.

The failure of the Secure Communities to foster inter-jursidictional cooperation led to the development of PEP in late 2014, which provided two “priorities for removal” forms to participating agencies. The first form requests that “the receiving local law enforcement agency notify ICE of the pending release from custody of a suspected priority removable individual at least 48 hours prior to release, if possible.” LPSO, according to Reardon, fully complies with this provision.

The second form, which creates the issue du jour, requests that “the receiving law enforcement agency maintain custody of the priority individual for a period not to exceed 48 hours beyond the time when he or she would have otherwise been released from custody.”

It is the second policy request that LPSO has opted out of, fearing possible litigation should it screw up someone’s civil rights.

I spoke with Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, and she sent me the internal ICE document that CIS then used to label Lafayette Parish a “sanctuary city.” The document, which an agent within ICE confirmed is legitimate, contains a note confirming that Reardon and Sheriff Mike Neustrom sent a letter to ICE notifying them of LPSO’s policy. That LPSO’s letter stipulates non-compliance with detainment requests without probable cause or a judge’s signature backs up Reardon’s description of LPSO’s policy.

ICE did not call Lafayette a “sanctuary city.” And although try as Vaughan might to imply otherwise (and she did, over and over in our conversation), it was solely at the discretion of CIS that Lafayette was placed on that list. Vaughan told me ICE made the call. I pressed her. She admitted the feds don’t use the term at all. It’s a designation applied by CIS, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has linked to right-wing nativist groups like Federation for American Immigration Reform. CIS is effectively the laundered policy apparatus of a cabal of anti-immigrant hate groups all sharing the dubious honor of forming the brain trust of white nationalist John Tanton, who has publicly advocated for the protection of a “European-American” majority in the U.S.

So what is a “sanctuary city” anyway? No federal organization that tracks, manages, deports, watches or determines policy for the millions of people that come the U.S. this year uses that term in any official capacity. As an epithet, the term’s origins are more optimistic. Amid violent civil wars throughout Latin America in the 1980s, many refugees sought asylum in the major metros like San Francisco and Los Angeles. But the waning and still tense Cold War created a legal environment still very much hostile to Latin American refugees and undocumented migrants in general.

Many sought safety in church basements and rectories, hiding from immigration authorities (then the INS) in communities that welcomed them. Authorities in those jurisdictions had trouble distancing themselves from federal agents seeking to detain and ultimately deport immigrants found in those communities, a rampant fear that made community-oriented policing difficult. Refugees would not report domestic violence, robberies, rapes or murders to the authorities, conflating the intentions of local law enforcement and the immigration enforcement agencies that pursued them. Many cities, most famously San Francisco, implement so-called “sanctuary” policies to get around that issue.

The geopolitical context has changed tremendously since then. While it’s accurate that many cities have begun to adopt “sanctuary” policies, they are no longer motivated by concern for refugees, but rather a concern for public safety.

“It’s out of its context and has become a loaded political term,” says Marc Blumenthal, deputy director of U.S. immigration studies at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “It’s a label that doesn’t really actually capture what those law enforcement jurisdictions are trying to accomplish.”

According to Blumenthal, the term is liberally applied and doesn’t appropriately reflect the changing landscape of cooperation between local and federal law enforcement. For many of the 340 jurisdictions identified by CIS as “sanctuary cities,” the issue is an allocation of priorities. One way of looking at it is that ICE detainers are a way for federal agents to get local departments to do their grunt work, an arrangement that doesn’t necessarily result in safer communities.

Mechanisms to prevent violent offenders from re-entering communities once booked are already in place by judicial procedure. If a jurisdiction believes that an offender poses a genuine threat, it can act in accordance with established law — judges set higher bails, determine flight risks and deny bond requests. These procedures apply to all offenders booked into community jails across the country, regardless of immigration status.

In any event, when honored, ICE detainers do not magically result in deportations. Suspected undocumented migrants are booked into federal facilities and sent through a civil court system with its own bonding procedures. In other words, an undocumented migrant turned over to ICE often ends up back on the street, to borrow the scare-tactic term, due to rights enforced and protected by the federal authorities that seek their custody.

“The current debate is really about the extent to which jurisdictions honor ICE detainers,” says Blumenthal. “It’s a different idea than protecting people from deportation. There’s a real policy issue as to how law enforcement deals with immigrant communities. They don’t see federal immigration priorities as their priority. With scarce law enforcement resources, they want to focus on local law enforcement priorities rather than federal immigration priorities.”

Much of what we’ve seen coming from the Leger campaign is an intent to restore LPSO’s commitment to “law enforcement fundamentals.” What’s disturbing is that, as we near the primary, Leger has begun to express “concern” about Lafayette becoming a “sanctuary city,” borrowing the language of a hate group in think-tank’s clothes and trumping an issue that frankly doesn’t exist in any significant way in Lafayette.

It’s a message right out of Donald Trump’s asshole of mouth, one that Leger and Pope have collected and recirculated in the sheriff’s campaign, with little more than nationalist propaganda to support it. Even being charitable to Leger and assuming no racist or nativist motivations, he’s at least not doing his homework.