In Trump’s first 100 days in office, we’ve witnessed ICE agents ramping up immigration enforcement by arresting at least 675 illegal immigrants across the country. Here in Maine, a new bill (LD 366) was introduced that would essentially empower local law enforcement to act as immigration officials. These aggressive policies bring with them a perception of animosity toward foreign-born Americans. Because of this, we thought it would be important to go over a concept rife with misconceptions: sanctuary cities.
How do sanctuary cities work? Are they the hotbeds of lawlessness that conservatives like our governor warn against, or do they encourage economic growth and promote safety for a community's most marginalized populations like most liberals believe? And should the cities in Maine that see the biggest influx in immigrants and asylum seekers — primarily Lewiston, Portland, and South Portland — consider adopting sanctuary status?
The debate is contentious, so let’s go over the basics.
Sanctuary cities are cities (and counties) that limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcers. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, there are over 300 sanctuary cities and counties across the country, and most have different definitions of how exactly they provide “sanctuary.” But most of the policies typically try to work around the same question: how should local law enforcement respond after learning that a person they arrested for a crime is undocumented?
A map of cities and counties in the U.S. that are designated as "sanctuary cities." From Bryan Griffith and Jessica Vaughn at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Consider this scenario: a Portland police officer arrests a male born from a Muslim-majority country for an OUI and books him for a night in the Cumberland County Jail. During the booking process, the suspect’s fingerprints are taken and sent to the FBI and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement; according to the FBI's website, this is mandatory for every person arrested for a serious charge, whether or not they're convicted. If after the fingerprints are cross-referenced in the ICE database and they come up as belonging to an undocumented immigrant, ICE agents issue a “detainer request,” which asks the local law enforcement to hold him in jail for another 48 hours, giving time for ICE agents to arrive and start the deportation process. But it’s just that, a request. A local police officer can honor the request and essentially act as a deportation agent, or they can undermine federal authority and let the person go after processing.
According to multiple courts, it’s unconstitutional for police to extend a person’s detainment past the point where they should be released. Critics of this practice like Oamshri Amarasingham, the advocacy director of the ACLU of Maine say the decision can be a lose-lose situation for local law enforcement because it usually comes down to a choice between receiving federal and state funding or degrading public safety. Amarasingham said that forcing local law enforcement to support Trump's "deportation army" will likely result in lawsuits filed both from municipalities, and local law enforcement who will inevitably have to racially profile to adhere to federal immigration orders.
"That is not what state and local governments are supposed to do, they need to prioritize the needs of their communities," said Amarasingham. "How is local law enforcement going to decide who to ask for their immigration status? I don’t imagine they're going to ask every person they pull over on the highway speeding for their immigration status. They’re going to ask people who look like or sound like they might not be here legally."
According to Amarasingham, local police departments honoring ICE requests creates a heightened sense of mistrust and fear of law enforcement from the immigrant community who need to depend on them for security just like any other community member, while ignoring the ICE request threatens the financial security of the department by angering politicians in power who view undocumented citizens as defacto criminals who should be deported.
Although Portlanders like to think of Maine as a welcoming to refugees and immigrants, there aren’t any official sanctuary cities here. In fact, progressives in Portland and South Portland have tried to distance themselves from the politically charged term, fearing a POTUS and a Governor who would love to pull funding from cities that aren’t following aggressive federal immigration enforcement. Currently, according to a report from NBC, Seattle Washington, and Chelsea and Lawrence in Washington face dramatic cuts in Department of Justice Funding because of their sanctuary status. This threat comes by way of Attorney General Jeff Sessions who warned last month of a crackdown on sanctuary jurisdictions that would potentially see $4.1 billion cut from future federal grants.
The City Council of South Portland, where 7 percent of the population is foreign-born, recently considered becoming a sanctuary city, but switched to a separate protective policy that avoids sanctuary city designation, but calls for non-biased policing and support for the Muslim population.
Councilors Maxine Beecher and Linda Cohen were opposed to making South Portland a sanctuary city because they didn't want to interfere with federal laws.
“I oppose sanctuary city status for several reasons,” said Cohen. “I believe it violates the oath we take as councilors, and I do not want to tie our police department's hands when it comes to bringing down those who commit illegal activities such as human trafficking or fake marriages, to mention a couple.”
Councilor Eben Rose dropped the original bid.
Regardless of whether they officially claim the designation of “sanctuary cities,” Portland and South Portland are already considered so in LePage’s mind because of policies in the books from 2003 prohibts police officers and municipal employees from asking about a suspect’s immigration status unless required to by law. The city ordinance is called "Prohibition on Immigration Status Checks," and says that "unless otherwise required by law or by court order, no city police officer or employee shall inquire into the immigration status of any person, or engage in activities for the purpose of ascertaining the immigration status of any person.”
The truth is, there isn’t a legal definition for a sanctuary city, and although the 2003 ordinance grants some protections for locals who might fear deportation, in general, Portland’s law enforcement does cooperate with federal immigration officials. Last year, the Cumberland County Jail held 40 inmates for federal immigration officials. And last month, two crackdowns by ICE agents happened in Maine (one inside a Portland courthouse) with two undocumented immigrants now potentially facing deportation.
According to Patricia Washburn, a former Democratic City Committee member, and spokesperson for the local activist group Progressive Portland, immigrants in Maine and across the country could be scared to interact with local police officers, seek justice, or report crimes because police departments are financially incentivized to cooperate with President Trump’s deportation plans.
“And that weakens the justice system for all of us,” said Washburn.
Washburn views immigrants both documented and undocumented as important parts of the economic and social fabric of a state that’s demographically very old and white.
“We need new blood,” said Washburn. “It’s unconstitutional for local police officers to aid with federal immigration. They have enough to do without having to become agents of the federal government.”
Along with other members of Progressive Portland, Washburn’s been petitioning against what they perceive as a big problem: state governments that step in and cut funding streams to local jurisdictions that defy federal immigration laws. This happened earlier this year when the Governor of Texas Greg Abbott called sanctuary cities “dangerous” and signed a law prohibiting them from receiving state funds.
It’s happening here too. Larry Lockman (R-Amherst) has introduced a bill, LD 366, which calls for the exact same thing. In an interview with the Phoenix, Lockman said that he’s baffled why this legislation is even controversial and said that he’s not anti-immigrant, he just thinks that the undocumented ones should be deported. Because of this hardline stance on immigration, he doesn’t like the term sanctuary cities because of its positive connotation.
“The term is actually pretty slippery,” said Lockman. “I prefer the term 'harboring havens for illegal immigrants'.”
Lockman's viewpoint falls in line with conservatives that see undocumented immigrants as either criminals because of their immigration status, or criminals in the making because of their unwillingness to integrate into Western culture.
“My bill has nothing to do with legal immigrants,” said Lockman, citing that America has one of the most generous immigration policies in the world. “The criticism around it is just a false flag to label it as anti-immigrant, which is ridiculous.”
Lockman often uses the deaths of Freddy Akoa and Treyjon Arsenault (two Mainers who were murdered two years ago by undocumented immigrants) as an emotionally charged political scare tactic that, in his mind, justifies his anti-immigration bill, and the admonishment of Portland’s 2003 ordinance barring cops from asking about someone’s immigration status.
“In both cases, the murderers had lengthy criminal records," said Lockman. "If the Portland Police had not been handcuffed by the politicians in Portland, they would have been able to give ICE a heads up and picked them up. Those two guys would have been alive today if it wasn’t for that ordinance.”
Although these individual cases of violence are true, Lockman’s wrong in his generalizations of the undocumented immigrant community. For starters, according to the Pew Research Center, Maine has one of the lowest populations of unauthorized immigrants in the country, with estimates lower than 5,000. Secondly, not being able to provide the appropriate papers is not a crime, it’s a civil violation.
And lastly, according to research of FBI crime data at the University of California, sanctuary cities actually experience less crime (and stronger economies) than their counterparts, with 35.5 fewer crimes per 10,000 people. According to ICE data, from the 645 undocumented immigrants that were arrested by immigration authorities this year, over half either had no criminal record or minor traffic violations.
"The problem with Lockman's bill is that it assumes that undocumented immigrants are generally responsible for criminal problems in this country," said Amarasingham. "Data and studies show that non-citizens including undocumented people commit crimes at much lower rates than citizens, but are disproportionately targeted by laws like this."
Lockman mentioned that the FBI has active ISIS investigation in all 50 states and that terrorism and public safety are the main concerns he’s addressing with his new bill. But according to the research done around sanctuary cities and the fact that Maine has a consistently low average of violent crimes (about 1 case per 1,000 people, mostly involving white people in domestic situations), Lockman’s paranoia is unfounded.
Progressive Portland thinks he’s more than paranoid, they think he’s downright racist and xenophobic.
Washburn said that Lockman’s use of the murders of Akoa and Arsenault as a politically charged point is irresponsible.
“If murder is the standard that we evaluate whether or not a group of people should stay in this state, then we should deport all the white men,” said Washburn.
Amarasingham called the bill "shortsighted and useless."
"This proposal is based in fear and hatred, and the will to demonize non-citizens," said Amarasingham. "It sends a strong message that non-citizens are not welcome here in Maine."