One of the most hotly debated issues in recent days—and one that will undoubtedly become even more heated in the coming weeks and months ahead—is that of sanctuary cities.
Do sanctuary cities pose an existential challenge to the institution of the federal government and the rule of law or do they represent an ultimate form of civil disobedience?
While there is no universally established, legal definition of what a sanctuary city actually is, it broadly refers to any municipality that prohibits its local law enforcement agencies and personnel from cooperating with and informing federal immigration officials, namely ICE, when it arrests or detains undocumented peoples.
This past week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions raised the stakes of the debate when he threatened to pull federal funding from those cities, counties, and even some states if they refuse to comply with federal immigration detention and deportation requests. Other punitive measures are also being explored.
Supporters of sanctuary cities cite increased levels of trust and cooperation between undocumented communities and police and other local law enforcement which results in safer communities. They also rightly point out that sanctuary cities protect undocumented immigrants from excessive trauma from fear of deportation and ICE raids—something I have witnessed firsthand time and again.
Opponents on the other hand, cite a laundry list of violent criminals released back onto the streets who would have otherwise been deported. There is also the larger issue of lawlessness. If an undocumented immigrant breaks the law, it stands to reason that law enforcement would hold that individual accountable for all the laws he or she broke, not just some while ignoring others.
After a Time Magazine article ran in early March about my church, New Seasons Christian Worship Center in Sacramento, CA, offering a “safe haven” for anyone experiencing extreme anxiety or fear—including those lacking appropriate documentation—our community has found itself at the very center of this debate.
Except that we are a church, not a city, and churches have long been afforded the right to stand in the gap between government policy and law enforcement in situations like these. You might say it’s the separation of church and state at work. It’s a whole different matter when cities choose to pick and choose what laws to enforce.
But there’s a larger problem. Instead of resolving our immigration problems, the sanctuary cities debate has created a distraction keeping supporters of comprehensive immigration reform from presenting a unified front. It's a rabbit trail, a misuse of political capital, and—in the end—if we don’t address the war then these battles will persist. While it is an important discussion, every second spent on it is a second not invested in permanent solutions that bring our immigration policy into the twenty-first century.
If we can achieve comprehensive immigration reform at a federal level, we could effectively eliminate the political incentive for sanctuary cities altogether. This is not only our first priority. It ought to be our only federal priority.
In this contentious debate we must always hold two very American ideas in balance: the sanctity of life and the rule of law. We must remember that many recent undocumented immigrants fled from countries where the rule of law has broken down, leaving them vulnerable and unsafe. We therefore owe it to our citizens, and to our recent immigrants, to maintain safety and security on our streets. That starts with enforcing all of our laws.
And if our laws aren’t working, it’s up to our elected officials to change them. And it’s up to us to make sure they don’t sleep till they do!
So allow me to say it yet again: Congress, I urge you in the strongest terms possible, pass comprehensive immigration reform now.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He has been named by CNN and Fox News as “the leader of the Hispanic Evangelical movement."
Faith and Education Coalition is an initiative of the National Hispanic Christian Leaders Conference (NHCLC), with 2,568 members representing almost 3,000 local churches in 44 states.