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This Small Town Is Helping Undocumented Immigrants, but Don't Call It a 'Sanctuary City'

Though local officials in red states avoid the word "sanctuary," many towns have decided that it makes more sense to work with undocumented residents than it does to deport them.

by Meredith Hoffman
Dec 15 2016, 5:30pm

Immigrant rights activists demonstrate outside a Ted Cruz rally in 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. The state voted for Donald Trump, but many Iowa towns are working to protect their undocumented population. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)​

Storm Lake, Iowa, isn't a "sanctuary city." Not if you ask Police Chief Mark Prosser, anyway. He says the term doesn't have any proper meaning, though it's broadly understood to mean a town where local authorities don't make an effort to enforce federal immigration laws or hold undocumented immigrants in jail at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). President-Elect Donald Trump has repeatedly pledged to cut federal funding to these cities, even as defiant liberal metropolises like Seattle, New York, and Chicago have vowed to stay the course.

But while some local governments pass official "sanctuary" policies and trumpet their status to the world, there are dozens—if not hundreds—of communities like Storm Lake choosing to quietly protect their undocumented residents because it simply makes sense.

Storm Lake has a population of 14,000 representing 30 different nationalities—"We're the most diverse community in Iowa," Prosser boasted—and is home to an impressive array of ethnic restaurants and shops; its two packing plants employ migrants from around the world. Prosser holds outreach programs for different cultural groups and workshops to educate people about the U visa, which undocumented victims of domestic violence can obtain. His team never asks about immigration status at these events.

"We need the assistance of all residents to be eyes and ears, so we have to establish their trust. I don't believe its' the part of local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, or to put residents in fear," Prosser told me. "The message we have is apolitical, that we're trying to create relationships."

Prosser is one of 60 sheriffs in the bipartisan Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, a project of the immigration advocacy group the National Immigration Forum. The group, which has met with the Department of Homeland Security, pushes for "common sense immigration reform," he said, including keeping local cops out of immigration enforcement.

Those policies sound like the policies of a sanctuary town, but there's a lot of variation among so-called sanctuary jurisdictions. In some places, police don't ask about immigration status; in others, there is a written law forbidding them from doing so; and in still others, cops refuse to pass individuals over to ICE if the federal agency asks.

"My impression is that 'sanctuary' has no real meaning, at least when we think of a city or a university," Shoba Wadhia, the director of the Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Penn State Law and a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told me. "It's appealing to the degree that it unifies those who want to ensure that a place or policy is pro-immigrant or protects immigrants, but I believe it's been so misconstrued and used by restrictionists that it may not be the best term to use.

To avoid possible backlash, many local jurisdictions are avoiding using the term, Morgan Ryan, the national coordinator for the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, told me. "This is a hot-button issue because there is no legal definition for what constitutes a sanctuary city, and legislation and policies are coming into place that potentially penalize cities considered sanctuaries," Ryan said. "This puts federal funding into jeopardy that departments rely on." She added the task force was split between sheriffs who considered their towns "sanctuaries" and those who did not—though they all believe that cops should not function as immigration officials.

Storm Lake's other public officials agree with Prosser's stance: Support the immigrant community, but stay away from the S-word—which makes sense, given Buena Vista County, which includes Storm Lake, voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 60–35 percent margin

"We're getting along just fine, we don't need to take on that," Jim Patrick, Storm Lake's city manager, said of adopting the term. "The police chief works very hard in trying to make people feel safe. We want things that happen to be reported and people not to feel threatened by reporting something... but if someone commits a serious crime, a felony, we're not going to offer sanctuary to someone like that."

Carl Turner, the superintendent of the Storm Lake School District—where 82 percent of students are non-caucasian and 18 languages are spoken in the classroom—told me "we don't use the term 'sanctuary' in Storm Lake."

"The thing we know about immigration is that people have varying views on what should happen," Turner said, but added he would advocate for his students in the face of immigration enforcement. "My job is to take care of my students, so I'm always going to do whatever I can to take care of my students."

Even leaders at Storm Lake's local churches, which often assist immigrants, opposed a formal "sanctuary" declaration. Father Tim Friedrichsen, the priest at St. Mary Catholic Church, boasted that he held "services in five languages, not even one in Latin," but worried that the term "sanctuary" was "a buzzword that creates more heat than light," and could "ratchet up outright opposition by people who want border control."

And Reverend Charles Valenti-Hein of Lakeside Presbyterian Church said Storm Lake "isn't interested in making a political statement" but wants to focus on its local community.

"Don't use that term," he immediately responded when I used the word "sanctuary." "I don't know of anybody in Iowa that's using it."

He said the real question was whether Storm Lake was taking care of its own people—and that was a definite yes.

"I'd say people of Storm Lake are trying to protect people here and the economy," Valenti-Hein told me. "It's a fragile economy that depends on immigrant labor. Thousands of people work at the two packing plants, and they're going to tell you they don't have a single undocumented worker," he said, though he's doubtful of the claim. He's also not sure there's any real threat to Iowa's undocumented population, despite Trump's rhetoric.

"What I have said is that I will be present if that ever happens and be sure everybody is accorded all the rights they have under the law," Valenti-Hein added, "even those who are not documented."

Storm Lake's decision over its "sanctuary" status is not solely up to the town—it's also a question of the county's police policy. When people are arrested, they go to the Buena Vista County Jail, overseen by Buena Vista County Sheriff Kory Elston, who then has the power to decide whether to honor ICE's requests for detainers, which are immigration holds the agency places on people to determine their immigration status.

"We still honor immigration detainers; however, the numbers have decreased substantially—I'm not even sure if there were any this year," Elston told me. "In years past, if we thought there were questions about a real name or something we'd call ICE, but now law enforcement doesn't even make those calls because ICE has access to our roster."

Immigration detainers have in fact decreased in recent years, with Iowa only receiving a few more than 400 in 2015, according to the Syracuse University database TRAC Immigration. Elston told me many county sheriffs in Iowa did not honor detainers, and that if the Trump administration began requesting many detainers, he would "reevaluate with the county attorney's office, get their opinion, and go from there."

"We're not immigration officials or officers. That's not our job—it's to enforce our local and state laws," Elston said, "and that's the way it should be."

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