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Unsettled: What Being A 'Sanctuary City' Means

Lake County Courthouse in Painesville (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

All this week we’ve paid special attention to the immigration debate in this country, especially how that’s playing out in Painesville in Lake County.  Some call Painesville “Little Leon” after the Mexican city where many in Painesville’s Hispanic community have connections.

The city manager this week announced a community task force to review a police policy of reporting certain arrests to federal authorities.  That policy, 413, had drawn loud support and opposition inside and outside of city council meetings.

Our series Unsettled: Immigration in Ohio wraps up today, first with a listen to some of the voices we encountered reporting this story, from diverse local and national sources…

Father in the U.S. on a work permit: “It's very hard because there, there aren't as many opportunities as there are here. I've been coming to this country to work for 23 years. I work very hard so that my daughter and son can get a good education, because here, this country has so many job and other opportunities, and in Mexico, there aren't these opportunities. That's why we came here, to work for a better future for our children, and to take care of the family that we have there [in Mexico].”

Daniel Dunlap, Lake County Sheriff: “We’re not heavy-handed. The media is doing a great disservice to the country—a lot of folks, not you in particular—because they love it.  They sell more newspapers, and they’ve revved up the community.  Three people, let’s think about this, three to four people in a year have been reported to ICE after, after, they committed crimes against the community and endangered others.”

Candelaria Hernandez (translated by a friend): She’s in the process of deportation right now. Her older son of course he already made his own family, so he’s gonna stay here with his own family, but she’s going to take her daughter with her back down there.

Thomas Homan, Acting Director of ICE, testifying to the House Appropriations Committee: “We can’t send the message get by the border patrol, get in the interior, as long as you don’t go and break another law, you’re home-free. Then you’re never going to gain control of the border.”

Questioner Rep. David Price (D-N.C.): "But by that standard you’re talking about every immigrant in the country without papers."

Homan: “If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder. And you need to be worried.”

Faviola: “You’re scared, every time when somebody knock me at my door, I’m scared I say oh my God, they can be immigration. I’ve had my house, already I lived in there for 11 years. I’m stay here, you know.  I have five boys.  I support my kids in school. I volunteer when people need me.  I’m not a criminal, you know. I’ve not kill anybody, I’m not robber, you know.”

Oscar Ornelas: “If the government gives us the opportunity to educate the people, I think the crime will be less, less, and less.  Kids need to find the way to be more for this country, but if we stop their dreams they’re gonna step back and do something wrong, something different.”

Ganzer: “Just some of the voices we encountered in reporting our series on the immigration debate. Even though we paid special attention to Painesville, cities all across the state and the country are making decisions about how they will, or won’t, work with the federal government on immigration law. ideastream’s Nick Castele is here now to give us a bigger-picture view. Hi, Nick.”

Castele: “Hey, Tony.”

Ganzer: “So we hear about communities, for example calling themselves sanctuary cities, but what does that really mean?”

Castele: “Well, there is no agreed-upon legal definition for the term sanctuary city. In general, this term refers to a city that limits, in some way, how much local police are involved in enforcing immigration law, or sharing information about people’s citizenship status with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. But there’s no true definition. Now I spoke with Steve Volk, he is a professor of Latin American history at Oberlin College. And he was involved in drafting a resolution that was passed in Oberlin that limits when the city collects immigration status of its citizens. He says that term, sanctuary city, can really be misunderstood. On one hand, people might think police will prevent ICE from serving search warrants, or arrest warrants, and arresting people—and that’s not the case. On the other hand, people might think that undocumented immigrants are more shielded from deportation than the really are. Let’s take a listen.”

Steve Volk: “And in that context, I come back to the sense that sanctuary is a symbolic statement of how we stand with our residents, but it cannot protect you from a legally served warrant. It just won’t.”

Castele: “So I think if you’re trying to determine if your community or any other community is a sanctuary city, or how exactly they work together or don’t work with ICE, there are some questions you could ask. One is, will local police report people to ICE if they do not have legal status? Or under what circumstances would they do that? Would they do it only if someone is charged with a crime, and if so, what severity of crime are we talking about? You could also ask, do the county jails report people to ICE who come through their doors who do not have legal status in the country? And another question to ask is, if ICE does ask a local jail to hold someone because they are an undocumented immigrant—it’s something called a detainer—does that local jail honor that detainer or do they let the person go?”

Ganzer: “Now you mentioned Oberlin’s policy on immigration status issues. What has that city decided to do or not to do?”

Castele: “Well, Oberlin updated a measure that it passed originally several years ago, and just this year they updated this. They said city services will not be denied based on someone’s immigration status. This resolution also said that the city won’t ask people their immigration status if they are witnesses or victims of crime, or people who are calling the city for some kind of help. The resolution also says that city staff are not prevented from cooperating with immigration authorities when they’re required to do so by law. Now here’s Steve Volk again.”

Volk: “Our statement said not that police defy the law in any way, but not go beyond what was legally required of the police department, which is to carry out its own duties, and not to get involved in issues which are a federal matter.”

Castele: “So you can see that things are not quite so clear-cut. One example here. Oberlin is in Lorain County. And if someone is undocumented and they’re arrested on some local offense, there’s a chance they could be booked into Lorain County jail. Well, if that’s the case, the jail says, it will notify ICE when people come through the doors but don’t have legal status. I spoke with the administrator of the jail, and he said while that is true, the jail also does not hold people merely at ICE’s request for immigration status issues. So if someone is arrested on a local charge, and ICE wants to hold them there, if they post bond on their local charge, they are free to go. Now the administrator of the jail said that doesn’t happen very often, but you can see how things are not perfectly clear-cut.”

Ganzer: “So if there’s not a clear definition, really, of what a sanctuary city is, maybe this is a tough question, but the Trump administration has pledged a crackdown on ‘sanctuary cities,’ have any Ohio cities been wrapped up in this?”

Castele: “Well, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a list of cities that the government said were sanctuaries. He sent these jurisdictions letters and said your federal funding could be threatened if you continue to not work with us. There were no Ohio cities on that list. Cincinnati this year did call itself a sanctuary city, but they were not on the attorney general’s list of so-called sanctuary cities. There’s another way that the government had been trying to put some pressure on local communities to cooperate. ICE had been releasing lists of their detainer requests that were not honored. A couple weeks after they started doing this, as the New York Times and some others reported, there was pushback from cities about what they said were inaccuracies in these reports. And ICE decided to put the program on hold while they evaluated, and they haven’t released any new info in several months.”

Find all the parts of this series here.

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.