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US police chiefs are fighting the crackdown on “sanctuary cities”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo talks with Trump protesters outside City Hall in February.
Tim Warner/Getty Images

The law-and-order president is angering a lot of the country's top law enforcement officers right now. The Justice Department has threatened to cut off federal grant funding to police departments that won't work more closely with immigration officers, and said it would bar some departments from participating in federal training programs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has blamed these so-called sanctuary jurisdictions for letting foreign criminals roam free and prey upon innocent Americans.

"So-called 'sanctuary' policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes,” Sessions said in a statement detailing the changes.

This narrative has angered a lot of police officials. Police chiefs who oversee America's largest law enforcement agencies unwaveringly assert that enforcing federal immigration laws is not their responsibility, and doing so would actually make their cities a lot more dangerous.

"The idea that there are police departments giving sanctuary to violent criminals is ridiculous," said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. "I don't know any police department that does that."

The crackdown on sanctuary cities has put police chiefs at the center of a political battle over immigration — a battle they want no part of. The vast majority of agencies (even in liberal San Francisco) already cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on criminal investigations, they said, but federal officials and some states want even more cooperation from them.

Acevedo said state and federal pushback against sanctuary cities has already made it harder for his officers to do their jobs, as immigrants are more reluctant to talk to police. The Justice Department wants access to local jails and 48 hours’ notice before they release an inmate that immigration agents are interested in. Texas lawmakers have gone even further, by empowering individual police officers to ask anyone they stop about their immigration status. Acevedo and many of his colleagues want to make clear that separating immigration enforcement from police work is not about protecting undocumented immigrants, it's about keeping cities safe.

When police are viewed as immigration authorities, it creates a haven for criminals to prey upon immigrants who are afraid to report crimes to police. They are also far less likely to serve as witnesses or share information with detectives, says Austin Police Chief Brian Manley.

"Criminals understand that, and they will feel emboldened to commit crimes against the immigrant community without fear of being held accountable because they know they won't call police," said Manley. "It creates a haven for crime."

About those “sanctuary cities”

There is no legal definition of what a sanctuary city is (watch Dara Lind's explainer here). It can include a range of scenarios, such as a city that bars police from asking anyone their immigration status (like San Francisco) or jails that won't hold inmates for immigration authorities beyond their release date (Baltimore). But these departments abhor the term "sanctuary" city, because it implies that they are letting immigrants commit crimes when in fact, most police in the largest US cities work with ICE agents to investigate human trafficking and gang activity, for example.

But that's about as far as they are willing to go. If they work too closely with ICE, it could stop immigrants from reporting crimes or testifying as witnesses to a crime, says Montgomery County Police Lt. Peter Davidov in Maryland. He remembers when two immigrant day laborers were key witnesses to a murder in suburban Washington, DC.

In March 2012, they saw a man yank a woman out of his car on the street, shoot her, and drive off. When Montgomery County Police officers arrived at the scene, the only witnesses who had taken down the car's license plates were the immigrants, who officers suspected were undocumented. With the tag information, detectives were able to track down the gunman, Philip Gilberti, who killed himself at home after shooting his wife.

"If those people had been afraid to talk to police, that would have been a danger to public safety," said Davidov.

Gaining the trust of the immigrants who live in their communities has taken years of outreach, said Davidov. This delicate relationship is now at risk. Montgomery County is at the center of a fight between the Justice Department and several so-called sanctuary jurisdictions in Maryland. The federal government wants jails across the country to hold people they suspect are in the country illegally. They do this by issuing detainer requests to jails when an inmate of interest pops up in their shared system information system. This usually happens when a suspect is fingerprinted.

But many states, including Maryland, say it's illegal to hold someone in jail after they're supposed to be released, unless there is a criminal warrant. Without a warrant, law enforcement agencies could open themselves up to liability, said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.

Another point where police disagree with federal authorities is the idea of whether undocumented immigrants are criminals merely for living in the United States without permission. Because it's considered a civil immigration violation, not a crime, police don't want to get involved in immigration enforcement, Davidov said.

"We don't go after people who don't pay their taxes on time, and we don't enforce EPA regulations, so it's the same thing with immigration," said Davidov. "Immigration has always been a federal responsibility, and we don't have the expertise or resources for that."

Meanwhile, in Texas

There is no place where police are feeling the heat more than in Texas. Police there are facing pressure from both the federal government and the state to work more closely with immigration agents.

Right now, the police chiefs of the state's major cities — Houston, Dallas and Austin — are in a legal dispute to block the implementation of a new state law that goes even further than Arizona's notorious "show me your papers" law.

SB4 was signed into law in May and goes into effect in September. Under the law, police departments cannot prohibit officers from asking people they detain about their immigration status (whether in a traffic stop or under arrest). Officers cannot be barred from sharing information with immigration authorities, or from assisting immigration agents in enforcement activities.

"Right now, it seems like we could be going door to door with ICE to round up individuals," says Manley, the Austin police chief. "But every officer that spends time working on immigration matters is one less officer investigating serious crimes."

Under the law, a police officer could go to jail for prohibiting another cop from taking part in the above scenarios. The entire thing has the major Texas police chiefs in a state of alarm, and Manley, Acevedo, and several others have sued the state's attorney general and governor, stating that it's an unconstitutional mandate that would lead to serious racial profiling. They are hoping a judge will issue an injunction to stop the law from going into effect in September. Otherwise, the police chiefs said they will have to train their officers about how to comply with the law.

That's going to be a huge change in Austin, where Manley said his department has spent a decade building a relationship with immigrant residents.

"I tell [immigrants] that if they see anyone wearing our patch and our badge, we are focused only on their safety and not their immigration status," Manley said. But that may no longer be the case in September.

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