'Sanctuary City' Doesn't Have A Legal Meaning, But It's Valuable To Some People In Wisconsin

Sep 16, 2019

Hundreds of communities across the United States have designated themselves a "sanctuary" for immigrant families. Some have created policies vowing they won’t share information about a resident’s immigration status with the federal office of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But what does a "sanctuary city" really mean? And who has a say in the matter?

Sara McKinnon, a UW-Madison associate professor, says a sanctuary city isn't an official government term.

"It’s really actually not a legal term at all. It has no legal meaning. But we use the term 'sanctuary city' a lot to refer to local municipalities, counties, and states that don’t cooperate fully with federal institutions in relation to immigration," she explains.

"... We use the term 'sanctuary city' a lot to refer to local municipalities, counties, and states that don't cooperate fully with federal institutions in relation to immigration." - Sara McKinnon

McKinnon adds that when a place designates itself a sanctuary, it’s saying it will limit the extent to which it will volunteer local resources to do the work of federal immigration enforcement.

"This might mean saying no to federal requests or detainers to conduct patrols, might be refusing to jail an individual who’s posted bond and the judge says can be released. It also might mean refusing to gather more information that’s needed to determine if an individual is eligible to receive services," she says.

McKinnon says sanctuary cities don't violate federal law, so refusing to cooperate isn't breaking any rules.

She also says the process of taking on the sanctuary title can be informal, and it can be anywhere from the mayor, a city council vote, or the governor who decides.

So, what about Milwaukee? Beats Me received a question asking:

When and who determined Milwaukee was to be a sanctuary city.

Beats Me: What Questions Do You Have For WUWM's Beat Reporters?

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, Milwaukee isn't a sanctuary city — and neither is Milwaukee County.

But the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) district passed a resolution designating itself a "safe haven" for immigrant families, following examples of safe haven school systems across the country.

"What we mean by that is we will protect our children and their families from any intimidation, by any source. But if ICE ever approaches our students or our schools, we would have something in place to assist them, assist their families and to protect them while they’re in or around our schools," says MPS Board President Larry Miller.

He says the resolution received support from both immigrant and non-immigrant families. And the local immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera advocated for that resolution, according to the organization’s Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz.

"Since the Trump election, our resistance to what we knew was coming down the pike was to really shore up protections and counter the hate mongering at the local and state level through what’s known as 'sanctuary policies.' "

READ: Tips For Protecting Your Rights Regardless Of Immigration Status

Neumann-Ortiz says the group also advocated in support of a resolution the Milwaukee County Board passed in early 2017, protecting immigrants who live here.

She also says, currently, Voces is lobbying the Fire & Police Commission to strengthen existing language of the Milwaukee Police Department's policies to ensure non-collaboration between MPD and Immigration & Customs Enforcement. 

Even still, sanctuaries have been challenged in Wisconsin.

In 2016 and 2017, Republican lawmakers authored bills that would prohibit sanctuary cities for immigrants living in the United States illegally — and would withhold state funding from cities that didn’t comply with federal immigration authorities. But neither of those measures passed.

As the conversation about adopting a sanctuary title continues to play out in cities and counties around Wisconsin, so has the conversation about law enforcement’s role in working with ICE.

In 2017, former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke applied to participate in the federal government’s 287(g) partnership with ICE. The partnership trains local law enforcement and then gives it authority to enforce immigration violations. The application was ultimately rejected.

Under the new leadership of Sheriff Earnell Lucas, the department says it has no plans to participate in the program in the future.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

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