Why We’re Meeting With Jeff Sessions

On Tuesday, I’m joining a few mayors in Washington, DC, to ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions what is turning out to be a complicated question: What exactly is a “sanctuary city?” With so much on the line, including federal funding, public safety, and relations with immigrant communities, mayors need to know what is meant by a term being used by a lot of people to mean many different things.

In January, the President offered his definition in an Executive Order that cut off federal grants from jurisdictions that “willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373.” That’s a federal law covering communication between government agencies. Since Austin communicates freely with federal agencies and does not violate this law, it wouldn’t seem we’re a sanctuary city. But we are nervous.

Alleged non-compliance with 8 U.S.C. 1373 was the reason the Attorney General sent letters on Friday to Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Cook County, Illinois, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The letters asked for proof that they were communicating with immigration agents lest they lose federal grants to help local governments pay for things such as equipment, training, and data collection.

In effect, these are the first officially designated “sanctuary cities.” Austin and Travis County were not among them, but it is not clear whether that has any significance or if only a sample of such cities were listed. What the Justice Department did on Friday raises more questions, but by not being clear why some cities were named and why others such as Austin were not, it fails to answer the original question: What is a “sanctuary city”?

What the Justice Department did on Friday raises more questions, but by not being clear why some cities were named and why others such as Austin were not, it fails to answer the original question: What is a “sanctuary city”?

Back in March, the Attorney General offered another definition of a “sanctuary city” saying he would withhold federal grants from cities that don’t comply with warrantless detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. But ICE detainer requests are just that — requests — and holding undocumented immigrants without a warrant is purely voluntary, and some courts have called it unconstitutional.

Surprisingly, it seems most people think a “sanctuary city” is one where police protect criminals by refusing to enforce federal immigration laws. I’m not sure there are such cities, and certainly Austin is not one. We follow the law and want criminals in jail, not on our streets.

Austin is one of the safest cities in the country partly because our police focus on keeping people safe regardless of where they come from or how they got here. This creates a trust relationship between our police and Austin’s large immigrant community. Because our police are seen as protectors and not potential federal immigration agents, immigrants feel safe reporting crimes and stepping forward as witnesses, which helps keep us all safe.

Austin is one of the safest cities in the country partly because our police focus on keeping people safe regardless of where they come from or how they got here.

Our officers simply don’t have the time or resources to enforce immigration laws any more than they have the capacity to act as IRS agents, USDA inspectors, or game wardens.

Austin’s success isn’t unique. The Center for American Progress and National Immigration Law Center reported in January that fewer crimes were committed in counties like ours with welcoming practices. For that matter, median household incomes are higher in such cities, and the poverty and unemployment rates are lower. Things work better when we trust each other.

Things changed after recent ICE raids in Austin and around the country. ICE went after undocumented immigrants regardless of criminality. In Operation Cross Check, Austin had the highest percentage of non-criminals in the country arrested by ICE despite claims that only dangerous criminals were being targeted. Most of those caught in our first raid were not suspected of any criminal activity.

Following Operation Cross Check, fear is increasing. Police see a reduction in immigrants reporting crimes. Social service agencies say many immigrants are too afraid to publicly access social services. Nationwide, we’re seeing immigrants cancelling food stamps to hide from ICE.

ICE’s indiscriminate raids are one reason why several mayors, police chiefs, and I met last month with Homeland Security Secretary Kelly, empowered along with the Attorney General under the Executive Order with yet another definition of “sanctuary city.” Any city that “prevents or hinders” ICE would qualify. Sec. Kelly didn’t say exactly how he would apply that standard, but we left encouraged because he said he wanted to focus ICE on going after dangerous criminals.

To be sure, Austin is a progressive city in the middle of a conservative state where a recent non-partisan poll shows immigration and border security top Texans’ list of concerns. But this poll showed that even in deep-red Texas more folks want police to focus on enforcing local and state laws than want them to enforce immigration law.

Here at one of the epicenters where this is playing out, it’s not so simple as talking points would make it seem. Those of us who have to live the issue every day know that by driving immigrants into the shadows, indiscriminate ICE raids make our communities less safe, less healthy, and more divided.

Here at one of the epicenters where this is playing out, it’s not so simple as talking points would make it seem. Those of us who have to live the issue every day know that by driving immigrants into the shadows, indiscriminate ICE raids make our communities less safe, less healthy, and more divided. Asking local police to appear as federal immigration agents destroys trust. We know what keeps our cities safe, and we’re happy to share what we’ve learned.

That’s the message that we want to take to the Attorney General this weekend, and it’s more important than any definition that trades on fear.­