What is a sanctuary city? Not us, local officials say, despite symbolic support for immigrants

New London City Councilor Anthony Nolan addresses a gathering of local faith and civic leaders called by Mayor Michael Passero for a rally to reaffirm the city's commitment to immigrants and refugees Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London City Councilor Anthony Nolan addresses a gathering of local faith and civic leaders called by Mayor Michael Passero for a rally to reaffirm the city's commitment to immigrants and refugees Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Standing inside New London City Hall early last month, just weeks after the Trump administration signaled that immigration authorities would start cracking down on undocumented immigrants who haven't committed crimes, city officials called New London a “diverse and culturally rich community” and said the city government and police would “protect and defend the civil rights of all members of our community.”

A month later, Norwich city officials and clergy members used some of the same words, calling that city a “safe harbor,” “diverse” and full of people who “support each other and care about each other" at a rally outside Norwich City Hall.

One word was conspicuously absent from the mouths of officials at these displays: “sanctuary.”

The word has taken on a new weight since Trump issued an executive order in his first days in office that directed the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to strip so-called “sanctuary cities” of federal funding.

The term has no legal meaning. It is generally used to describe places where police do not enforce federal immigration law and do not actively cooperate with federal officials investigating noncriminal violations of immigration law.

Since the Trump administration memo was released, "sanctuary city" has become a label that some cities have embraced and others have rejected, while some still are tiptoeing around as they wait to see how the Trump administration orders will play out.

Though residents of several local towns and cities have organized public displays of support for their immigrant neighbors regardless of their documentation since Trump took office, no local governments have gone as far as saying they would refuse a request to cooperate with immigration officials, and none has made a point of using the term “sanctuary city,” let alone defining it.

“I’m not using that term,” New London Mayor Michael Passero said. “It has too many negative connotations, and it doesn’t mean anything.”

State and federal guidelines include a number of protections for undocumented people, whether they have been accused of a crime or not.

In 2013, the Connecticut state legislature approved the Trust Act, which prevents state law enforcement agencies from detaining a person beyond the time of their scheduled release unless they are convicted of a felony, have not posted bond for pending criminal charges, have an outstanding arrest warrant, are a known gang member or have been listed in the federal terrorist screening database.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reaffirmed that legislation in a memo last month to police chiefs and superintendents that said law enforcement officers "should not take action that is solely to enforce federal immigration law."

And under a 2011 Obama administration directive, known as the "sensitive locations memo," the Department of Homeland Security avoids seizing suspected undocumented immigrants at places like schools, hospitals, places of worship and public rallies or demonstrations.

'You're safe here'

Protection in local cities for undocumented immigrants who have not been accused of any crime remains largely symbolic.

New London police officers do not collect information about the immigration status of people they arrest or the victims of crimes. In 2011, then-Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio barred police from asking about someone's immigration status or detaining a suspected undocumented immigrant, unless they were investigating a violation of federal immigration law.

The 2011 New London order, Finizio said in an interview earlier this month, was meant as more of a symbolic gesture to the city's immigrant community than as a policy change.

"Sanctuary, to me, means ... in our own ways we can also set up the little flame that (says) 'no, this place is OK, and that you're safe here,'" he said. "It's not a policy of the government, it's a policy of the people that live there."

Legal advocates for people who are in Connecticut without immigration papers also have a muddled relationship with the term "sanctuary cities."

"I like the term, and I don't like the term," said Michael Doyle, a local immigration attorney who has been handling the cases of many local undocumented people.

"On the one hand, people think about the word 'sanctuary,' and they think of this 100 percent, absolute safe space," Doyle said. "However, the label 'sanctuary city,' or sanctuary anything — campus, city, state — can take a myriad of different forms, all of which could be labeled as sanctuary cities. There's sort of this sliding scale."

Kica Matos, a New Haven-based activist and the director of immigrant rights and racial justice for the Center for Community Change, said New Haven has been labeled a sanctuary city because of its policing approaches, but also because of the wide range of support systems that advocates for immigrants have worked to put in place.

The city issues identification cards to New Haven residents; the cards also are available to undocumented people. City government officials, nonprofit organizations and local churches provide a variety of legal and charitable services to help residents and protect them against Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids or deportations. Matos said advocates also are working to strengthen city policies supporting undocumented immigrants there.

"Right now ... we are taking it a little bit further, and we are looking at ways to protect immigrants," Matos said.

Legislative bodies in several towns, such as Windham and Bloomfield, have considered or passed resolutions defining themselves as sanctuary cities, with varying interpretations of the term. In southeastern Connecticut, school districts, colleges and churches also have pledged to provide sanctuary.

Norwich Mayor Debery Hinchey said she has not discussed the use of the term with that city's police attorneys, and the leaders of several other local towns said they either have not considered the possibility of applying that label or that they do not plan on using it.

On a "sliding scale" of sanctuary cities that Doyle, the New London immigration attorney, described, a town like Danbury falls on the opposite end from New Haven.

The mayor of that town, Mark Boughton, has made clear his support of local law enforcement cooperation with ICE investigations, going as far as joining a voluntary program developed under President George W. Bush known as a 287(g) agreement, which enlisted local police in helping with ICE investigations.

The Obama administration scrapped the program in 2012, but Trump's January executive order would ramp it up again, and Boughton told The Hartford Courant last month that he might be interested in rejoining it.

Both Passero and Hinchey said they would not agree to sign such an agreement.

Police see contradictions

Regardless of how many public affirmations are made that undocumented immigrants are welcome in a place, the "sanctuary city" label would put a unique burden on law enforcement and is a tricky term for municipalities to embrace, officials said.

The police chiefs in New London and Norwich both said they have not received specific requests from ICE for help detaining people solely for violating immigration law. Immigration lawyers told The Day last month that recent ICE actions in Connecticut targeted individuals accused of crimes, and that they saw no evidence of the large-scale raids seen in other states. 

But city police can’t stand in the way of federal authorities when they're seeking undocumented immigrants, acting New London police Chief Peter Reichard said.

"We don't come to work with the intent to put people in jail for just coming into this country illegally," he said. But, "the federal law enforcement agency supersedes everything."

The lack of specificity in Trump’s executive order, paired with Malloy’s declaration that Connecticut will protect its residents from expanded deportations, has created an especially contradictory position for local police departments, Reichard added.

"The governor is basically saying 'do not enforce the law,'" Reichard said. "Our job is to enforce the law."

Trump's executive orders could make immigrants even more fearful of all law enforcement — and therefore less likely to report crimes or cooperate with community policing and criminal investigations, Passero said.

"What makes me most concerned ... is that all of this heightened scrutiny of immigration policy on the federal level ... is going to hamper our local police in reassuring the members of the community that we're here to protect all of them," he said. "We don't need people becoming victims of crime because they're afraid to report criminal behavior to the local police."

m.shanahan@theday.com

Ann McCarthy of Fairfield attends a rally Feb. 6, 2017, to make Bridgeport a sanctuary city outside City Hall in Bridgeport, Conn. Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim seized on the presence of the Fairfield resident at the protest and held his own demonstration across the city line at the Fairfield rail station. On social media, he posted a photo of himself with a sign declaring 'Make Fairfield a Sanctuary City!' (Brian A. Pounds/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)
Ann McCarthy of Fairfield attends a rally Feb. 6, 2017, to make Bridgeport a sanctuary city outside City Hall in Bridgeport, Conn. Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim seized on the presence of the Fairfield resident at the protest and held his own demonstration across the city line at the Fairfield rail station. On social media, he posted a photo of himself with a sign declaring "Make Fairfield a Sanctuary City!" (Brian A. Pounds/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)
Tony and Jen Spangle, of Brooklyn, Conn., listen to a speaker during the Norwich Area Clergy Association's prayer and song gathering to rally support for immigrants Wednesday, March 1, 2017, on City Hall Plaza. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Tony and Jen Spangle, of Brooklyn, Conn., listen to a speaker during the Norwich Area Clergy Association's prayer and song gathering to rally support for immigrants Wednesday, March 1, 2017, on City Hall Plaza. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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