Guest Columnists

The myth of the 'sanctuary city'

Citizens fill the chambers during a city council work session in Iowa City on the prospect of becoming a sanctuary city on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Citizens fill the chambers during a city council work session in Iowa City on the prospect of becoming a sanctuary city on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The Iowa House of Representatives is considering House File 265, which would prohibit state, county, city, and educational institutions from limiting or restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws. The bill is based on the myth of sanctuary cities and campuses, raises major Fourth Amendment issues, and will cost counties and cities money they could otherwise invest in their communities.

Legal sanctuaries are a myth. There are zones, within 100 miles of a border, in which some constitutional provisions are applied in a limited manner to enforce immigration law, but none in which federal immigration law does not apply. To be clear, there is no part of the United States in which federal immigration law is not in force.

Sanctuary cities, counties, and campuses are a symbolic show of support for unauthorized immigrants and important because they insist that federal agencies follow rules of due process and carry their share of financial burden. But they are not exempt from following federal immigration law. Colleges, universities, and cities may declare themselves as places of sanctuary, but they are still subject to immigration law. The same goes for law enforcement agencies.

State and local law enforcement agencies are not tasked with enforcing immigration law. That is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And contrary to arguments that are made on a regular basis, not having authorization to be in the United States is a minor civil infraction, not a criminal offense. Still, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of DHS, can and does ask local police departments to detain individuals suspected of being unauthorized and of having committed a crime, a practice that is deeply problematic.

Why is the practice of immigration detainers problematic? The fourth amendment affirms the right of individuals, whether or not they are citizens, “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” against unreasonable search and seizures without probable cause and a supporting warrant. DHS routinely asks localities to lock up people without a warrant or judicial approval, on the word of an ICE agent. This practice has resulted in widespread wrongful detentions, including of U.S. citizens.

These efforts cost a considerable amount of money to local communities and educational institutions. These detainer requests do not come with a check to defray the costs of housing suspected unauthorized immigrants. In fact, small cities and counties routinely shoulder the burden of detention. A recent review of detainers in Texas concluded that they were optional, expensive, and ineffective.

Why pass a law that tells cities and counties to do what they are already doing, to potentially violate the Fourth Amendment, and to take on the costs of doing the federal government’s work?


Iowa has other challenges and opportunities on which to focus. We have an aging and shrinking population, but also a dynamic economy to which we can attract needed workers, national and international. Immigrants and their children are productive contributors and members of our communities.

The “brand” of Iowa until very recently has been one of a welcoming place. The House File 265 is not only unnecessary; it sends the message that we are closing ourselves off from the world rather than embracing it.

l David Cook-Martín is a professor and assistant vice president for global education at Grinnell College.



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