In NYC, Sanctuary City Leaders Strategize

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito welcoming lawmakers and activists to the March 27-28 conference on Sanctuary Cities (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

[Correction: The meeting continued all day on March 28, not until mid-day as originally reported. Press was excluded from the afternoon meetings.]

The first-ever meeting of its kind, attracting lawmakers and activists from Denver, San Francisco, New Haven, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and elsewhere to exchange information about best practices for sanctuary cities (#SEEKINGSANCTUARY) kicked off in Lower Manhattan on Monday, March 27. Organized by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Local Progress, a national network of hundreds of local legislators, the conference’s objective, said Mark-Viverito, was to bring knowledge, experience and positive energy together to develop legislative, budgetary and organizing strategies to face the challenges ahead.

Mark-Viverito said that the people gathered in the room at the Borough of Manhattan Community College had a “shared vision – which is to protect our immigrants, to do everything in our power to defend our communities and to defy injustice. While the recent ICE raids and the increasingly disturbing national divisive rhetoric may give us all reason to pause or to succumb to fear, this room, right here, demonstrates that we can, in fact, build our own wall of resistance around the country.”

“I’m hoping we’re going to become this administration’s worst nightmare,” she added to cheers and applause.

The term “sanctuary” refers to the action, historically undertaken by members of a faith community, to shield someone from unjust arrest or punishment by ruling authorities. Cities, in declaring themselves sanctuary cities, are rejecting the “subsidization” of the federal government’s efforts to round up, detain and deport immigrants, because the federal government depends on local support “to keep the deportation machine going,” observed Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. “When localities are enacting these [sanctuary] policies and rejecting these kinds of collaborations, they are not engaging in civil disobedience, but they are in fact acting fully within the law and within their constitutional authority to refrain from implementing federal policies that harm communities,” said Archila.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration promotes the false view that sanctuary cities are somehow defying the law. Lourdes Rosado, bureau chief of the Civil Rights Bureau at the Office of the Attorney General of New York State, said that it was critical that “counter messaging” make it clear how wrong and misleading the federal government’s argument is. Municipalities are in fact “upholding the law, upholding our constitution because for example, they are refusing to hold people without a traditional warrant or probable cause that they have committed a crime. Which is what our U.S. Constitution requires and all of our state constitutions require,” said Rosado.

Like Archila, many speakers stressed that sanctuary activities by cities are lawful, and that it is the executive orders and arbitrary acts of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that are clearly unlawful. And many speakers acknowledged that their localities had developed policies for dealing with deportations and separation of families during the Obama administration. Now, with the Trump administration pursuing a “dragnet approach” and ripping families apart, said Mark-Viverito, “we want to figure out ways that we can continue to push the envelope about what is legally within our purview as a city to continue to uphold those values.” She noted a current case of a landlord harassing tenants by saying that he will have them deported, and that the city’s human rights laws protects tenants, irrespective of immigration status, from such harassment.

Michael Wishnie, deputy dean of experiential education, William O. Douglas Clinical Professor of Law, and director of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services organization at Yale Law School, offered conference attendees a number of  potential areas for new action by local lawmakers. He suggested the following: First, many local legislatures, apart from their appropriation and authorizing powers, have oversight powers, not often utilized. It’s possible to run oversight hearings of federal programs, he said, and to issue subpoenas to compel the production of records and testimony. Second, he said, city attorneys in some jurisdictions may be directed to initiate civil rights labor and immigration litigation just as states’ attorneys do. Third, he said, it’s important to bear witness – just as hundreds of people did at the airports after the first executive order. “There’s no question that the courts follow the people,” Wishnie said.

Fourth, the lawyer said, we can turn to additional measures to build the communities we want, including reviewing rules and regulations covering occupational and professional licensing. Finally, Wishing noted that with the 2020 census forthcoming, it was critically important for cities, which typically undercount their residents, to count everyone.

The meeting continues on March 28.

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