NEW YORK -- At a recent GOP presidential debate, "sanctuary city" surfaced as one of the most charged and confusing terms in the political lexicon. Some municipalities proudly flaunt the label. Some Republican presidential candidates gleefully toss it around like a verbal hand grenade. But there is no agreement on a single definition of the term or even on whether such a thing really exists.
While opinion surveys usually rank illegal immigration fifth or sixth overall as an issue of concern in the presidential race, a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found it is a subject sparking deep partisan divisions that are reflected in the often heated rhetoric about "sanctuary cities."
The use of the word sanctuary in the context of immigration is rooted in the 1980s, when some U.S. churches announced that they would offer "sanctuary" to refugees from the civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries.
These days, a sanctuary city or other locality generally is considered one that adopts, officially or unofficially, a "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward the immigration status of people when it comes to most municipal benefits and services, such as schools and emergency medical care, or when it involves victims of or witnesses to crimes. The policies generally do not extend to those arrested for criminal offenses or convicted of crimes.
But on the political stage, such policies tend to be regarded as good or bad, with rarely anything in between. Some people view them as a way to provide illegal immigrants with basic services, promote their cooperation with police investigations and spare municipalities from spending resources on federal law enforcement. Others see them as an encouragement to illegal immigrants and a threat to local and national security.
So, when GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney accused rival Rudolph W. Giuliani of running a "sanctuary city" during his tenure as mayor of New York he used the term as fierce opponents of illegal immigration often do: pejorative shorthand for being soft on illegal immigrants.
Ditto when Giuliani lobbed the expression back at Romney, saying that the former Massachusetts governor ran a "sanctuary mansion" because the landscaping firm he used for his home was found last year to employ illegal immigrants. Romney, who had given the firm a second chance, fired the company last week when the Boston Globe reported that the landscaper was still using illegal immigrants, some of whom worked at Romney's home.
But when New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and dozens of other localities around the country adopted "sanctuary" policies directing municipal employees to refrain from inquiring about the immigration status of individuals in most cases, unless required to do so by law, court decision or in the case of a criminal arrest, they intended the action to be seen as positive and compassionate. Not to mention cost-effective, since it leaves enforcement of federal immigration laws to federal agents.
Either way, both sides are arguing from a false premise, said David Abraham, a professor of immigration and citizenship law at the University of Miami School of Law.
"There is really no such thing as a sanctuary city," he said. Cities may adopt resolutions and laws prohibiting city workers and police from inquiring about citizenship in relation to city services, but those restrictions essentially already exist in federal law, he said.
Abraham noted "three critical areas where the law is federal but policy must be executed locally." In the 1982 case of Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court held that all children, not just citizens, of elementary school age must be provided with free public school education. Under the 1986 Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, emergency medical care must be provided to anyone in need, regardless of their ability to pay or their immigration status.
"Thirdly, victims of crime and witnesses to crimes are covered by the mandate that law enforcement officials stop crimes and do their best to solve them," he said. He noted that such police function is an extension of the government's mandate to keep order and of constitutional obligations owed to all "persons," not just citizens, regarding life, liberty or property.
As far as cities adopting sanctuary policies, Abraham said, "They're doing nothing more beyond saying they're going to abide by the law as it exists."
By the same reasoning, critics of cities with such policies actually are criticizing them for obeying the law, he said.
"The sanctuary city accusation is a claim that local government should be doing more to identify and turn over illegal aliens to the feds. Now they are not permitted to do so at the schoolhouse. They are not permitted to do so in the emergency room. And, the police are not interested in stopping in the middle of a crime to ask if the person who is shooting or being shot at is legally present. Law enforcement would grind to a halt."