A group of students wants the City of Lawrence to join a growing list of “sanctuary cities” across the country that limit their reporting to federal immigration agencies.
The students said they were prompted in part by the election of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has taken a hard stance on illegal immigration, deportation and refugees.
“I’m hoping that they’ll feel like their city has their back on some level,” said Viveca Price, a junior at Lawrence High School involved with the petition.
Throughout his campaign, Trump talked about mass deportations and monitoring refugees from countries known for terrorism.
Some also worry about the future of the executive order issued by President Barack Obama, DACA, which provided protection from deportation to millions of people who were brought to the country illegally as children. Obama’s order gave those immigrants temporary permission to work and study in the U.S., which Trump could potentially rescind. However, Trump has indicated more recently that his first deportation efforts will be focused on criminals.
The request to make Lawrence a sanctuary city was part of a petition made by about 20 students from Lawrence High School and presented formally to the City Commission at its meeting Tuesday. City Manager Tom Markus said city attorneys will review the request and it would come back before the commission at a later date.
Creating a sanctuary
Price said she hopes being a sanctuary city will help people who may feel threatened by some of Trump’s potential policies to feel safer.
“By becoming a sanctuary city, you would align yourself with the people of your community, specifically those who are refugees, immigrants and Muslims,” Price said. “Because while all minorities are threatened by what’s going on in January, and our next few years, it has the possibility to be worse for those members.”
There is no legal definition of a sanctuary city, but the most common form is a local government that instructs its law enforcement not to investigate or report someone's immigration status to federal immigration agencies unless there's a compelling reason to do so.
Such a designation could bring blowback at both the national and state levels. Opponents of sanctuary policies say they can threaten the safety of other residents by enabling undocumented immigrants who have committed a crime to remain in the country. Earlier this year, Kansas lawmakers introduced a measure to ban cities or counties from adopting such policies, but it died in committee. Sanctuary counties in Kansas include Butler, Finney, Harvey, Johnson, Sedgwick and Shawnee.
Local leaders say the high school students aren’t the only ones to bring up the topic. The University of Kansas Student Senate passed a resolution last month asking that Lawrence become a sanctuary city, and City Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he’s gotten questions about it from several residents.
“I think it’s a conversation we’re going to have to have,” Herbert said.
The reach of a city policy also would need to be determined. Whether action by the City Commission could create an overarching policy that covered both law enforcement agencies that serve the area isn’t clear. Markus said there won’t be an answer to that until city attorneys have finished their review of the request.
“I think it’s premature to comment on it until we’ve had a discussion and until we’ve had a chance to look at it,” Markus said.
When local law enforcement agencies check and report a person’s immigration status varies, currently, depending on the circumstances and the agency involved.
Lawrence police officers commonly come into contact with undocumented immigrants, according to Capt. Anthony Brixius. Such contact happens most commonly in traffic stops or calls for service in which the person is the victim, witness or suspect of a crime, Brixius said.
“It’s really not a question that we ask very much, but we do figure it out with identification cards,” Brixius said.
Brixius said that although the department doesn’t have a policy, its general practice is that unless someone is in custody for suspicion of a person felony, officers wouldn’t check his or her immigration status or report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
However, the Lawrence Police Department’s practice only extends so far. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the local jail, operates differently.
Generally, if sheriff’s office deputies need to check a person’s ID as part of their duties — whether that be part of an arrest, dispatched call or traffic stop — they would also check that person’s immigration status, according to Sgt. Kristen Dymacek. If the person were identified as an undocumented immigrant, the sheriff’s office would notify ICE regardless of whether that person had committed a crime.
Under all circumstances, a person would never be detained solely because of their immigration status. Dymacek said if an undocumented immigrant had committed a crime, he or she would be arrested, booked into jail and charged, and be allowed to post bond if applicable.
Not a simple issue
The students’ request is part of growing conversations both national and local.
Though such policies have existed in some cities for years, the election of Trump has redirected attention to sanctuary cities. Major U.S. cities such as New York and Los Angeles have said they won’t work with federal agencies to deport undocumented immigrants. Trump has threatened to cut some federal funding to sanctuary cities once he becomes president.
Herbert said it’s not a simple issue, and that a lot of people don’t realize the implications of the city adopting an official sanctuary policy. He said the discussion will have to involve a lot of conversation with the community, the city manager and higher levels of government.
“I think a lot of people, their understanding of exactly what sanctuary status does is pretty limited,” Herbert said. “It’s not simply a solidarity statement. There is a whole lot more that goes into it and some of things that go into it involve defying federal orders, essentially. And I think anytime you get into stuff like that, you can’t make it a simple issue.”
Statement of solidarity
The request from the high school students, though, goes beyond protection for undocumented immigrants. In addition to being a sanctuary city, the petition asks for a statement of solidarity with people of color, immigrants, Muslims, refugees, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups.
Price said she wrote the petition along with fellow LHS student Jazzmin Matchette.
“Jazzmin and I, we really want Lawrence to be a safe place,” Price said. “We saw some ideas from other sanctuary cities, and they were recently putting out statements similar to ours.”
In support of their effort, the students organized a walkout from school on Dec. 1, in which more than 20 students brought the signed petition to City Hall. Their request was eventually presented to Markus, after which it was added to the agenda for the City Commission’s next meeting. On Tuesday, Price and Matchette presented the request as part of the public comment portion of the meeting.
The one-page request includes a list of five demands, including several policies or practices. The five demands, summarized, are as follows:
• That revisions be made to the city’s human relations policy to include the promotion of safety from the police department and the creation of a citywide “safe zone.”
• Not label Black Lives Matter or any groups that promote social justice as criminal or terrorist organizations. The city will not attack any of these groups or those in attendance.
• Not to assist, cooperate or aid in the surveillance of Muslims, immigrants or refugees.
• That commissioners design legal strategies to resist federal policies that would put marginalized groups in danger.
• That commissioners design legal strategies to resist any possible defunding of businesses and organizations that include and are similar to Planned Parenthood.
The city’s current human relations policy explicitly prohibits discrimination in employment and housing. That policy covers discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, ancestry, familial status, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity.
Whether a sanctuary policy could be adopted or whether the existing policy can be expanded somehow will likely be part of the conversation going forward.
Markus said city staff are in the process of arranging a meeting with the students to further discuss their request. City attorneys will research the topic and bring a recommendation to the City Commission to review at an upcoming meeting.
Herbert said that review, specifically the legal expertise of city attorneys, will be key in his consideration of the request.
“I understand the emotional push from the community, that we want to be an accepting community — we’re sort of the progressive island in the middle of Kansas,” Herbert said. “I absolutely believe all of that, but I think as city commissioners we have an obligation to make sure that the decision that we make for our city doesn’t have unintended consequences that are going to be fairly large.”