How sanctuary cities can do better

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Aug 2, 2017 · 3 min read

By Daniel Alvarenga

Pressure has mounted against sanctuary cities in recent months, as the Trump administration forges forward with its strategy to criminalize migrants, deny travel visas and supposedly secure our borders. (Even though this recent study shows sanctuary cities are safer than non-sanctuary cities.)

The UNHCR says there are 65.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, and 22.5 million of them are refugees — more than at any other time in recorded history. This coupled with Trump’s proposed crackdowns on immigrants makes these sanctuaries more important than ever. Here’s a few ways cities can do better:

Get public transportation on board

San Francisco has held sanctuary status since 1989. However, BART — the rapid train system that runs through the greater Bay Area — didn’t have a policy to protect immigrants until 2017. This meant an undocumented person traveling to work between different sanctuary cities in the Bay Area still ran the risk of being asked by transit officers about their legal status, which could put them in danger of deportation.

That’s exactly what happened on a train in Minneapolis, another sanctuary city, where Ariel Vences-Lopez was asked about his immigration status by a transit officer after failing to pay his fare.

Here’s what happened:

The officer also used a taser on Vences-Lopez and notified ICE, who later detained him and issued a deportation order. The officer was eventually fired, but Vences-Lopez is still fighting to stay in the country. Situations like this could be avoided if transit agencies had more explicit policies to protect immigrants. BART’s new policy prohibits transit officers from asking about a rider’s immigration status, but they would still comply with federal immigration law if ordered by a court.

Decriminalize minor crimes

Los Angeles made moves to decriminalize street vending earlier this year. Before, selling food on a sidewalk could result in a misdemeanor charge and put the wheels in motion for deportation if the people involved were undocumented. That policy left immigrants especially vulnerable under the Trump administration, which has promised to deport people charged with a crime, even if they haven’t been found guilty yet. Now, vendors in LA can still face fines up to $1,000, but these citations will not result in criminal convictions.

Misdemeanors can also lead to deportations, but what’s considered a misdemeanor varies greatly from state to state, ranging from shoplifting to drunk driving. The city of Denver figured out that they could protect immigrants by reducing maximum sentences for petty crimes to less than 365 days; sentences of more than one year put undocumented immigrants on the feds’ radar.

The decriminalization of street vending could also ensure this doesn’t happen:

Protect immigrants’ data

Data mining by ICE is becoming an increasing concern. Earlier this year, in an effort to protect their data, New York City destroyed the records of 900,000 applicants for IDNYC, a municipal identification card available to the city’s undocumented population. The card lets carriers do things like obtain a library card or open a bank account. Identification initiatives like these help undocumented immigrants access services, but they could have the unintended consequence of making people vulnerable to arrests and deportation if shared with ICE.

Several cities have vowed not to hand over the personal information of undocumented immigrants from their city ID programs. But ID card registration isn’t the only risk. The biggest data sharing between city governments and ICE occurs through local police departments, including in sanctuary cities. How far-reaching that cooperation goes will be a major battleground in the coming months and years.

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