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Federal government tension with sanctuary cities intensifies

By Prem Calvin Prashad

The standoff between so-called “sanctuary cities” and the federal government crystalized for Queens residents recently, when rumors spread that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement visited PS 58 in Maspeth, allegedly to check on the immigration status of a fourth- grader there before being turned away by school security.

City and local officials rallied to defend the school’s decision, affirming their opposition to ICE operating in the city. Subsequent reports have disputed whether or not the individual asking about the student’s status was affiliated with ICE, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or some other agency. Mayor Bill de Blasio later criticized the Department of Homeland Security for not reaching out for information, which he says the city was willing to provide.

However, the confusion and ambiguity over ICE operations is emblematic of problems facing large cities across the country.

Rumors of ICE agents operating in places such as Jackson Heights have rattled New York’s estimated half million undocumented immigrants. While social services and medical providers report fewer levels of undocumented persons seeking services, law enforcement is also concerned that crimes against the undocumented will go unreported.

In response to these concerns, the city of Los Angeles called on ICE to stop identifying themselves as “police.” The federal government declined, noting that the word police was universally recognizable and therefore necessary to operations.

Sanctuary cities, at varying levels, determine to what degree they cooperate with federal mandates on immigration. At the core of this power struggle is the federal government’s resolve to unilaterally pursue the broad application of immigration enforcement.

According to the Washington Post, detentions have surged under the Trump administration, with the arrest of 41,318 immigrants, roughly 400 a day. It’s worth noting, however, that the ramp up of immigration enforcement is in fact reflective of a trend that began during the Obama administration.

The previous administration’s officials alleged that only “criminal aliens” were being targeted for deportation, though the definition of a criminal record often included minor civil offenses. An estimated three-quarters of detentions this year are believed to be immigrants with criminal records or gang affiliation.

Unauthorized crossings at the U.S. southern border with Mexico have dropped to levels not seen since the late ’80s. Overstayed visas are now the most common reason why a person is undocumented. Still, immigration played prominently during the 2016 election, and that has brought enforcement actions, particularly against parents, activists, or childhood arrivals to national prominence.

The mass deportation agenda occurs concurrently with the administration’s initiatives to implement a Muslim ban, end temporary protected status for asylum and refugee seekers from Central America and Haiti, and speed up deportation proceedings. Large cities, such as New York, have responded with increases in legal aid for immigrants enduring deportation proceedings, as well as affirming protections from having immigrants disclose an undocumented status when interacting with city agencies or law enforcement. Protections such as the DREAM Act appear in place, with the federal government giving no indication of removing those protections.

For immigration advocates, the large increase in the deportation of non-criminals is alarming. The deportations represent many long-term residents who have thus far not been offered the possibility of legalizing their status, as was the case in previous decades.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has made sanctuary cities its primary target, aiming to cut federal funding, nominally for counter-terrorism efforts for cities that do not assist deportation efforts. Citing concerns over funding, Florida’s Miami-Dade County was the first to rescind sanctuary status.

Currently, the executive order to withhold federal funding was blocked in federal court, with U.S. District Court Judge William H. Orrick noting that only Congress has the constitutional right to apply such conditions to funding. The decision drew a sharp rebuke from the president on social media.

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