What Does Being a “Sanctuary City” Actually Mean For Cincinnati?

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When Mayor John Cranley stepped to the podium at City Hall on Monday, he delivered impassioned remarks with an inclusive message. “This city stands with immigrants,” Cranley said to a round of applause from a crowd filled with political and religious leaders. He continued: “This city stands with Muslims. This city stands with Syrian refugees yearning to be free. This city has been for years, and will remain, a sanctuary city.”

Those words, which came in the wake of the executive order signed by President Donald Trump that “temporarily” banned immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, garnered enthusiastic applause. But while Cranley’s sentiment was met with approval, there is still work to be done for it to yield tangible results.

The problem lies in the term “sanctuary city.” Giving a city sanctuary status is an inexact science at best. Interpretations of the phrase range from a city that is simply accepting of immigrants to one that is willing to deliberately, though legally, defy federal orders. Under Cranley’s watch, the city has taken steps to ensure it remains immigrant-friendly, including establishing policies in which officers cannot “stop, detain, question, or arrest” a person solely because they are suspected of being in the country illegally. The mayor’s office, however, has a limited ability to influence federal immigration procedure.

In actuality, a sanctuary city doesn’t have as much impact as a sanctuary county. When a person is arrested in Hamilton County, regardless of whether it’s a city cop or an officer from a different locality, they are processed through the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office rather than the city. During that processing, the person’s information eventually makes its way to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If ICE determines that the person in custody is undocumented, the office may issue a detainer, or hold, asking local authorities to keep that person in custody until they are able to secure a deportation warrant.

The Sheriff’s Office, however, has the power to choose whether or not they will honor detainers from ICE. Courts have previously ruled that requiring local authorities to honor these detainers is unconstitutional, particularly if the person in custody would otherwise be released. It’s complicated, but take this example: Say a person is arrested for disorderly conduct, a low-level misdemeanor, booked in jail for a night, and is set to be released the next day. If ICE flags that person as undocumented and sends a detainer to the Sheriff’s office, it may ask the local jail to keep that person locked up for 48 hours in order to allow someone from ICE to come and pick up that person, even if they are to be released in less than 48 hours. Since detaining a person after they were to be released due to an ICE detainer may violate the person’s Fourth Amendment rights, the Sheriff’s office is not required to honor that detainer. The distinction between true sanctuary regions and those that don’t quite live up to the name exists primarily in the adherence, or lack of adherence, to these ICE detainers.

In some counties, such as Kings County, New York, and Cook County, Illinois, home to New York City and Chicago, respectively, there are rules in place to protect immigrants from ICE detainers. But those counties are in the minority. According to a study of 2,556 counties by the Immigration Legal Resource Center, only three percent have strong policies limiting local authorities from participating in immigration enforcement. The vast majority, roughly 72 percent, tend to comply with ICE requests.

Hamilton County is included in that 72 percent. Despite the mayor’s sanctuary declaration, the Sheriff’s office still plans on honoring ICE detainers. “The law directs local law enforcement to comply with federal enforcement agency’s detainers and our office will not ignore the law,” says Sheriff’s spokesman Mike Robison.

In a statement, Sheriff Jim Neil reiterated the sentiment: “I took an oath to enforce the laws of the United States of America and the laws of the State of Ohio,” said Sheriff Neil. “We don’t get to decide which laws we enforce and which we don’t.”

The Sheriff’s Office policy states that every person will be treated the same, regardless of nationality. The policy also states the Sheriff’s Office will generally not detain anyone longer than what Ohio law would require. But Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, who stood by Cranley’s side at Monday’s press conference, said that there is some gray area in the policy that could allow the Sheriff’s Office to honor ICE civil detainers in addition to criminal detainers. “There appears to be an area in the sheriff’s written policy that is inconsistent and that could create confusion about whether the Sheriff is on board with this Board majority’s position on the issue,” Portune says. He added that he plans to meet with Sheriff Neil to clarify the position of the Sheriff’s Office on the issue.

Regardless of what comes from that discussion, Cincinnati’s status as a sanctuary city lies in the hands of the Sheriff’s Office.

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