Is bell tolling for sanctuary cities? Not a chance

Among his rash of presidential orders, Donald Trump’s resolve to punish so-called “sanctuary cities” rings bells, steeple bells.

While none of our 18 cities has formally anointed itself as a refuge for immigrants, anti-Trump activists no doubt yearn for the defiant title as a gesture of solidarity with threatened municipalities.

In a figurative flip of the bird to Trump, Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento are pushing a bill to make California a sanctuary state. San Francisco has filed suit to thwart Trump from denying federal funds to the “sovereign” sanctuary city. (Going against the Golden State’s grain, Miami’s mayor bowed to Trump’s order.)

Sanctuary. The political expropriation of this ancient word takes me back.

Some 20 years ago, I drove up to Fallbrook to meet the pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, a blue-domed place of worship with a well-tended rose garden in front.

The church was known as a gathering place for Latino men, strangers in a strange American land.

“Churches in Mexico and Guatemala are the center of town,” the Rev. Edward “Bud” Kaicher told me. “The church is the center of the men’s identities. So when they come to a foreign country, this is one place where they feel at home. We don’t check people’s legal status when they come for communion, nor should we when we offer soup or pass out clothing.”

One day, however, the sanctity of the church was breached in a brutal way.

On his first day on the job, a rookie Border Patrol agent chased a suspected “illegal alien” (the accepted style in those days) into the church and arrested him 3 feet from the altar.

The blowback against the Border Patrol was intense. Was nothing sacred?

In religious history, a sanctuary is a consecrated place of refuge for anyone on the run.

Egyptian, Greek and Roman temples offered rights of asylum to fugitives fleeing secular authorities. Christian churches carried on the sheltering mission into the 17th century.

Today, allowing a place of worship to offer temporary safety to non-violent criminal suspects is a matter of discretion. In most circumstances, courtesy trumps the law. Reasonable accommodations are made to serve justice.

In 1996, the Border Patrol wound up profusely apologizing to Father Bud for violating his sanctuary.

Well, a church at least has a historic claim on its separation from the secular world.

But cities and states? They have no business being viewed as shrines.

Sanctuary states like Oregon and cities (Los Angeles, New York, Boston and on and on) are far from hallowed ground. They’re made up of public squares with police on the beat.

In this context, so-called sanctuaries drive a wedge into the body politic. Liberals tend to love them for their nobility of soul; conservatives tend to hate them for their holier-than-thou acceptance of lawlessness.

The real winners, of course, are those partisan organizations that profit from endless conflict.

Stripped down to their shorts, sanctuary cities reject the responsibility to assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. It’s our job to protect people, these cities assert, not help deport them.

Pragmatically, police are spared the task of detaining criminal suspects until the ICE-men cometh. Additionally, one often hears, local law enforcement’s ties with the immigrant community are strengthened.

But by no stretch is any sanctuary city a genuine refuge. The feds have the run of the place.

In response to Trump’s thundering order, the mayor of Boston offered to house undocumented immigrants in his City Hall, a throwback to the religious tradition of sanctuaries.

But any federal agent with a warrant could walk into City Hall and arrest a suspect.

A similarly oversold promise is baked into the confection of “Welcoming Cities,” a feel-good branding that Encinitas, Lemon Grove and Solana Beach have adopted to suggest that they are very, very nice to all people, especially undocumented immigrants.

Given the politics of the region, however, the word “welcoming” is not universally welcomed.

Last year, progressive Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina alienated his city when he blindsided the council with his proclamation that IB would be an official welcoming city.

After an uprising, Dedina withdrew the proclamation and it hasn’t been brought up since.

The young mayor learned a valuable lesson. He tells me he’s now focused on making his 4-square-mile town run better, paving alleys and sidewalks, attracting grocery stores in poor neighborhoods. He’s also intent on building up links with Tijuana to solve issues like sewage. He acknowledges he stumbled in pushing a hard-to-explain measure that “didn’t have a policy meaning.”

Way up north, in Escondido, Mayor Sam Abed has done his best to push back against the perception that his city is unwelcoming to the undocumented. (To be fair, Escondido earned that perception 10 years ago with tough ordinances.)

Today, Escondido police have an unusually close working relationship with ICE, but Abed says the targets at checkpoints, for example, are serious criminals, not law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

“We are a welcoming city,” the conservative mayor insists, but Escondido is not going to congratulate itself for being ... WELCOMING!

In the end, words like sanctuary and welcoming are divisive diversions from the nuts-and-bolts work of running cities. They’re slippery symbols that can mean any number of things to different people, but they’re not representative of consistent policy.

On the other hand, they do play into populist politics. To Trump, they’re red capes he can’t resist charging.

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