‘Sanctuary’ label or not, Iowa City right to listen to its own

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Members of the Iowa City Council deserve praise for weathering a barrage of politically-motivated ugly comments and threats from people in surrounding areas as they explore policy questions raised by local residents.

Shortly after Mayor Jim Throgmorton was prompted to include discussion about Iowa City becoming a “sanctuary city” on Tuesday night’s work session agenda, a statewide conservative advocacy and action group led by Jimmy Centers initiated a robocall. Centers, previously a part of Gov. Branstad’s administration, urged supporters to let their voice be heard by attending the work session or contacting Iowa City officials. More than 100 recipients of the call took advantage of its automatic forwarding to connect with city hall. About half that number emailed the city.

“I do not want Iowa City to become a sanctuary city,” wrote Waterloo teacher Patricia Rosenberg.

David Telliho of Kalona wrote, “If you do this thing, I encourage anyone who suffers injury, perpetrated by one of your illegal ‘sanctuary’ seekers, to pursue legal action against each one of the Council members.”

California resident and anti-immigration activist Robin Hvidston noted in capital letters that Council members should “uphold the law.” The message was one of about 10 sent by people on the west coast, most responding to an action alert by Hvidston’s advocacy group.

“I will never visit your town if this is passed,” wrote Bobby Geary, who did not provide his location.

Two-thirds of the messages in opposition either came from other Iowa municipalities (67 percent) or did not include a location (33 percent). My guess is that phone calls had a similar geographical bent, but I’ve not reached out for confirmation.

Residents of other communities, bolstered by misinformation and riled up by political action groups using “sanctuary cities” — a term with no legal definition — as a rallying cry, took time to write an email or make a phone call. Whoopee.

Elizabeth Bernal of Iowa City addresses the city council in support of sanctuary city status during a city council public comment period at the Iowa City City Hall following a work session on the prospect of becoming a sanctuary city on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Elizabeth Bernal of Iowa City addresses the city council in support of sanctuary city status during a city council public comment period at the Iowa City City Hall following a work session on the prospect of becoming a sanctuary city on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Council was correct to acknowledge the messages and move on to address the requests and concerns of local citizens. They did their job.

Part of mine is to offer a considered opinion on current events and provide factual context to the same. After reviewing several news articles and social media posts about the Iowa City discussion, it’s clear context is needed.

The term “sanctuary city” has been tossed around a great deal, especially during the most recent presidential election when several GOP contenders, including President-elect Donald Trump, pledged to strip funding from so-called sanctuaries. Such pledges stem from a multitude of falsehoods and generalizations about what being a “sanctuary city” means.

These are not cities that carte blanche refuse to honor federal immigration law. A common misperception is that “sanctuary cities” can somehow prevent or block the Department of Homeland Security from enforcing federal immigration laws within their boundaries. That’s pure nonsense.

DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers can take people into custody if they have evidence of immigration violations or take action against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers in any city or county throughout the nation.

A defining factor is the presence of “separation” policies and/or ordinances, so named because they emphasize the separate roles of local law enforcement and federal immigration agents. Cities that enact separation policies or ordinances clearly state city employees are not federal immigration officials, and that they will not co-opt the authority of the federal government to enforce federal immigration policies.

More than 500 cities and counties throughout the country — including more than two dozen Iowa counties and many more cities — have technically and practically been operating as de facto sanctuary cities for years.

In the case of Iowa counties, policies in many sheriff offices — including Linn, Johnson and several agencies in more conservative areas of the state — mandate not holding people in jails without a proper warrant. Most of those polices were enacted after a federal appeals court ruling inferred that DHS “detainers,” or requests for local law enforcement agencies to hold suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant, could subject local departments to civil rights violations and lawsuits.

Other communities have separation ordinances in place to conserve local resources, because the federal government does not generally reimburse local jurisdictions that expend taxpayer dollars on immigration enforcement initiatives.

Still others have learned — and research supports this assertion — that communities are safer when all residents feel welcomed, connected and invested. They want all residents in need or crisis to feel comfortable when seeking city services, including law enforcement.

The Iowa City Police Department, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies are not branches of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If these jurisdictions believe incorporating that fact into their code will help cultivate good relationships with the communities they serve, that it will give all residents assurances they can speak to police without fear, why shouldn’t they do it?

The most immediate threat to cities is rhetoric that drives the undocumented into the shadows, creating a population that avoids contact with police at all costs. When that happens, crimes go unreported, witnesses bolt and community health degrades. People perceived as possible immigrants become easy targets for crime and harassment.

The foundation of safe and strong communities is mutual trust. Citizens expect local authorities to serve and protect, not raid and deport.

Sanctuary cities exert local control by clearly stating they will not include federal job duties in their day-to-day routines ­— and they embrace the risks or repercussions, if any, resulting from their actions. That’s why it is important for local leaders to hear from local residents, for there to be a community dialogue about the pros and cons of this and other policy shifts.

What the Iowa City Council or any local entity exploring such distinctions through the “sanctuary” label or other policy doesn’t need is unwarranted and unsolicited political meddling by outside groups with secret donors.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on January 8, 2017. Photo credit: Liz Martin/The Gazette