9 things you need to know about the 'sanctuary cities' debate

Posted at 8:31 AM, Feb 08, 2017

CINCINNATI -- Overjoyed or outraged, a fight over Cincinnati's status as a "sanctuary city" raised a lot of strong emotions during the past two weeks.

Those feelings aside, here are nine things you need to know (whether you've made up your mind or not):

1) What's a sanctuary city?

Depends on who you ask. Legally, it doesn't have a real definition. Instead, it's an informal term used by politicians and law enforcement officials to describe areas that don't fully adhere to Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to hold and turn over a person suspected of being an undocumented immigrant.

The term does not mean the undocumented immigrants detained in all "sanctuary cities" are immune from deportation. Instead, it means that local law enforcement agencies will not turn over to ICE individuals solely on the basis of them being illegal.

In San Francisco, which is often called a "sanctuary city," deputies sometimes refuse ICE detainer requests. Other cities, such as Dayton, are sometimes labeled as "sanctuary cities" simply because of welcoming immigration resources or policies.

2) So is Cincinnati actually a "sanctuary city"?

Maybe, maybe not.

Mayor John Cranley says it is (and has been for a while).

City Council voted last week to make it official (well, symbolically anyway -- they passed a resolution, which didn't change any policies and doesn't carry any legal weight). The measure expresses officials' desire "to be a welcoming and inclusive city for all immigrants to live, work or visit." City Councilman Wendell Young, who introduced the resolution, noted Cincinnati's history as an "immigrant-friendly" city.

"There are already programs and policies in place that align with the fabric of 'sanctuary cities' here in Cincinnati," Young said.

As examples of Cincinnati's already-existing "sanctuary city" practices, the resolution pointed to the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati's non-government ID program and indicated plans to not respond to ICE detainer requests.


3) What's the Cincinnati Police Department say?

Cincinnati police do cooperate with federal immigration officials, though they're told not to target or arrest people simply because they might be undocumented. The official policy is:

"Federal courts have consistently held that undocumented presence is not a crime but a federal civil violation enforceable only by federal officers. CPD officers will not stop, detain, question, or arrest a person solely on the basis that the individual may have unlawfully entered the country and/or exceeded their Visa. CPD officers will not enforce immigration laws. However, if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers request assistance from a CPD officer in detaining a subject, the officer will provide assistance with the approval of a supervisor."

This policy has been in place since March 2015, and CPD spokesman Lt. Steve Saunders said there are no plans to change it. Both he and Young said if ICE asked for help, Cincinnati police would help.

But also, Cincinnati police don't get ICE detainer requests because the city doesn't have its own jail, Saunders said. Instead, Cincinnati's inmates go to the Downtown jail that Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil operates.

4) What happens at the Hamilton County jail?

Neil's office will continue to detain undocumented inmates at the request of federal immigration authorities. A spokesman with the sheriff’s office confirmed no policies changed at the Hamilton County Justice Center even after Cranley declared Cincinnati to be a "sanctuary city."

If deputies are unable to identify a person in custody, they can contact the feds for help. ICE may then request the county jail detain the person to await immigration hearings, said Michael Robison, the media director for the sheriff's office.

That policy will stay the same, Robison said.

5) Are local officers responsible for immigration enforcement, anyway?

Not really, says U.S. Sen. Rob Portman. Asked about Cincinnati declaring itself a "sanctuary city," he said the move left him a little puzzled.

Portman told reporters he'd continue to push for immigration reform and believes "the law of the land ought to be enforced."

"It doesn't mean that city police departments have to enforce it, because that’s not typically their job," he said. "It's typically the job of the the federal government -- ICE and (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) and others."

6) Why is this such a big issue now?

Just a few days into his term, President Donald Trump signed an executive action that would strip federal grants from "sanctuary cities" that choose not to turn over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities.

Along with a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations identified as high terror risks, immigrant groups and their allies (typically on the political left) started to push back against the president.

Cranley, a Democrat, faces a re-election fight from two other Democrats who are to the left of him, politically. He's pushed to make Cincinnati more immigrant friendly during his first term. But, after the 2015 terror attacks on Paris, he called for a temporary halt to the resettlement of Syrian refugees here. Cranley said he wanted better background checks, but later told reporters he didn't intend to prevent refugees from coming to Cincinnati.

Since Cranley doesn't face a more conservative opponent, and he's running in a largely Democratic city, his "sanctuary city" announcement last week may have been a move to cover his left flank.

Then, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel decided to wade into the issue, blasting Cincinnati's move as dangerous for the state and country. He and Rep. Candice Keller, R-Middletown, announced legislation Monday to define and outlaw "sanctuary cities" in Ohio and punish public officials with "sanctuary city" policies.

Mandel's hoping to win the Republican nomination in a bid for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown's seat. Senate races aren't cheap, and Mandel's campaign sent out a fundraising email within hours of his state office announcing the legislation.

7) So what's Mandel say Cincinnati is doing wrong?

The treasurer says Cincinnati police should inform federal agents about every undocumented immigrant they encounter -- and argues they're legally required to do so.

He points to two federal laws: one that forbids anyone from concealing, harboring or shielding undocumented immigrants from detection, and another that prohibits local and state governments from enacting laws or policies that limit communication about someone's immigration status with the feds.

"I think most people just think it's crazy that Mayor Cranley and others don't want to report that illegal immigrant to the federal immigration services," he said.

8) What's the city say about it?

Saunders said he's not aware of any law requiring someone to report a person to the feds simply because they know that person to be undocumented. And he said it's not a common occurrence for officers.

Both Cranley and Young argue the city isn't violating any federal law with its policy.

"If an undocumented person commits a crime, they'll get arrested like anybody else," Young said.

Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac takes the same position as the Major Cities Chiefs Association: that the role of local police is keeping everyone in their communities safe, even if those people may be undocumented. The argument goes that fear of deportation could drive undocumented immigrants into the shadows, letting serious crimes go unreported and unsolved.

9) Would Mandel's legislation stand up in court?

Probably not, says WCPO legal expert Mark Krumbein.

Because Cincinnati declaring itself to be a "sanctuary city" is just symbolic, he said there's a freedom of speech issue: It'd be like barring Cincinnati from calling itself "the Queen City," Krumbein said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio also has called the legislation unconstitutional.