City Council should designate Iowa City a ‘sanctuary city’ for undocumented immigrants


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The term “sanctuary city” paints an idyllic image of a quaint town, a community accepting of all residents. Many of those opposed to creating such a designation for illegal immigrants, however, conjure up a more sinister picture: openly condoned criminality, malevolent characters, and taxpayers under siege.

Last week, the City Council consented to further discussion on the possible classification. The Editorial Board applauds this laudatory first step and supports making Iowa City the state’s first sanctuary city. In addition, we’re hopeful future discussion on the matter will be conducted with the respect and level-headedness typically lacking in immigration debates.

While a bit nebulous, the term “sanctuary city” was first used in the 1980s, in reference to cities that allowed refugees seeking political asylum to live within city borders without repercussions. Today, more than 30 cities across the United States take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach toward illegal immigration, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Sanctuary City Committee has pressed the council to add Iowa City to that list for months.

Kevin Leicht, a UI sociology professor and immigration expert, said he would back such a move.

“On balance, I consider it generally a good idea,” he told the Editorial Board. However, given the relatively small number of illegal immigrants in Iowa City, he noted, “I would expect places like Postville or Columbus Junction to be more obvious choices.”

At its most basic level, conferring sanctuary-city status is about protecting the health and safety of the powerless. Undocumented immigrants are relegated to the shadows of our society, fearful of being outed for their immigration status. Their reticence can lead to unreported crimes — against themselves or others — and engenders an atmosphere of marginalization.

Sanctuary policies ameliorate this victimization, while helping police solve more serious crimes. As Leicht put it, these policies are “another tool in the policeman’s tool kit” and help combat crimes “the same way the university helps underage people who’ve had too much alcohol.” Both of these scenarios are integral to the well-being of harmed, yet simultaneously law-breaking, individuals.

In addition, the Sanctuary City Committee has correctly noted that immigration issues fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, not local agencies. That position is corroborated by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which stipulates state-level authorities are not vested with any powers to uphold the act.

Opponents of sanctuary cities cry foul, though, claiming these designations allow illegal immigrants to “get away with murder.” While we certainly neither advocate nor promote immigration into this country illegally, basic human rights transcend boundaries and should not be based on the possession of a visa or green card.

Paul Deaton, the chairman of the Johnson County Board of Health, correctly noted in a guest opinion earlier this year, “Making Iowa City a sanctuary city would be no panacea. It would be a first step toward improving the international community that is Iowa City.”

Indeed, what our country needs is an immigration overhaul. We need a genuinely humane system, rather than the punitive, restrictive one currently in place. A sanctuary-city designation would ensure illegal immigrants wouldn’t be unduly victimized in Iowa City and could contact the police if need be.

The Editorial Board would like to see the sanctuary-city issue take the floor at a future City Council meeting — sooner rather than later. For a city that prides itself on its human-rights record, promises of equality, and tolerance of even-minded discussion, our city deserves to be designated the first “sanctuary” in Iowa.

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