December 21, 2016

Sanctuary Policies and States Rights

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

With the election of Donald Trump, some faculty and students on college and university campuses are particularly worried about what a Trump presidency will mean for the safety of undocumented students. Trump has vowed to reverse President Obama’s executive orders (including DACA), “end sanctuary cities,” and restrict federal funding to locales that do not comply with federal immigration agents. This is particularly troubling for young people with DACA-status (see my previous post for an explanation of DACA here). Given growing concerns over undocumented students’ safety, several colleges and universities have proclaimed themselves sanctuary campuses.

The idea of sanctuary cities and campuses dates back to the 1980s Christian Sanctuary Movement that, as sociologists Norma Stolz Norma Stolz Chinchilla and Nora Hamilton, and anthropologist James Loucky explain, "combined religious faith and social activism to provide refuge for Central Americans fleeing violence and persecution and to raise awareness of the responsibility associated with U.S. policy in the region."

Although the United States was in part responsible for the instability in Central America, from support of repressive governments due conflicting economic interests, and fears regarding national security and rising Communism, the US saw this instability as a threat that could allow for the potential growth of “foreign” superpowers in their backyard, namely the Soviet Union. As a way to control this threat, the Reagan administration refused to grant refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua political asylum. In response, churches, religious organizations, students, activists, and others, organized the sanctuary movement to provide a safe location in the United States to undocumented refugees who were fleeing violence in Central America.

Out of this emerged the idea of a sanctuary city (or town, region, et cetera). While there is no one definition, it includes specific municipal policies that contradict or challenge federal immigration law and enforcement agencies. This often includes a requirement that local public employees (most often police, but also teachers and other civil servants) not ask for one’s immigration status. In some areas, it also includes refusing to house undocumented immigrants in local jails for the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Supporters of sanctuary policies claim that these measures decrease crime and improve reporting. Opponents claim these policies protect violent criminals who are in the U.S. illegally.

Although sanctuary policies have existed for over 30 years, there isn’t a lot of data on their impact. Some studies claim that these policies have no effect on crime rates. Other studies show that immigrant-friendly policies and increased relationships between immigrant (regardless of status) communities and local law enforcement has led to lower crime rates and increased crime reporting (for a detailed history on local enforcement of immigration law click here) in some cases. This is partially because undocumented immigrants believe that they will not be legally penalized for their immigration status. While decreases in crime may be related to sanctuary policies, it can also be attributed to increases in comprehensive community policing, where both residents and local law enforcement collaborate to decrease crime rates. Much of this is built on a precarious system of trust.

Drawing on the language of the sanctuary movement and sanctuary cities, several colleges and universities have publicly announced that they, too, will serve as places of sanctuary to undocumented populations. As with sanctuary cities, there isn’t a clear definition of what this might mean. However, some colleges, such as Wesleyan University, have indicated that the school will “not willingly assist with governmental efforts to deport undocumented students, faculty, and staff.”

Given that President-elect Trump has vowed to end sanctuary cities (and one would assume campuses), what measures might he take to ensure this?

We exist in a federated system of government, meaning that we have both state and national laws, while at the same time we firmly believe in state’s rights, that state and municipal governments have the ability to pass local laws that are separate from federal laws. In the pat this has applied to policies pertaining to gun control, abortion, immigration, marijuana, same-sex marriage, for instance. Before it became a federal law, same sex marriage was legal in 37 states. Prior to the passage of the federal law, this meant that if a couple married in California, that marriage was not recognized nationally or in state’s that did not allow same-sex marriage.

Additionally, states may choose to ignore federal law. For instance, 26 states, including California, have legalized marijuana use in some form. Yet, the federal government continues to ban the growth, distribution, sale, and use of the drug. Although state agencies may not penalize (and often support and tax) this growing industry, federal officials have the authority to detain and arrest those who are in violation of federal law. In addition, federal courts are obligated to uphold federal federal law over the state’s law. In regards to immigration, local governments might refuse to assist ICE with detention and deportation. In return, as President-elect Trump has indicated, the federal government can pull federal funding to localities that do not comply with immigration law or work with ICE agents. The same is true for universities and colleges; these are institutions that overwhelmingly rely on federal education grants to function.

These policies highlight political tensions for elected officials who support local constituents by not complying with national law. These types of tensions are nothing new; we’ve seen similar actions with states that declined to follow or only partially follow federal public education guidelines or welfare benefits guidelines.

These discrepancies also showcase our particular form of democracy at work and indicate the importance of civic action and local elections. Local level voters (and students) have immense power to shape the policy decisions that directly affect their lives.


Thanks for this. I would say the US is *largely* responsible for instability in Central America. Reagan era policies that led to the flooding of black communities with cocaineb to generate cash used to illegally supports Contras in Nicaragua (see "Dark Alliance" by Gary Webb). Also, from the POV of African Americans, "states rights" have frequently been used to terrorize and oppress black people.

Thank you for your comment. States rights have absolutely been used (and continue to be used) to terrorize African-Americans, Indigenous nations, Mexican-Americans (and Mexicans), and Puerto Ricans (who lack state rights), in particular. The post in no way supports that terror, but it does highlight one of the ways that people, at a local level, can mobilize to change policy. In terms of sanctuary movements, this has been particularly useful in the creation of sanctuary cities.

Latin American governments (despots and citizens) are also to blame for instability in Latin America. Again, this doesn't excuse the U.S. consistent and massive involvement. It does, however, acknowledge the agency and involvement of Latin Americans who bought into the ideology and rhetoric of whiteness (both from the U.S. and Europe).

Yes, "largely responsible" needn't mean that we ignore local accountablity. Mobilizing locally strikes me as something different from states rights. Indeed, if you are mobilizing in North Carolina or Texas or Mississippi, you would necessarily mobilize *against* the state.

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