Tucson Voters Will Decide on Sanctuary City Status

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Tucson voters will decide Tuesday whether the city that gave birth to the 1980s Sanctuary Movement should offer limited sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

Mission San Xavier, south of downtown Tucson.

The Tucson Families Free & Together initiative, a project of the Tucson nonprofit Peoples Defense Initiative, would restrict when and where police could ask about immigration status — something state law requires when a law enforcement officer suspects someone is undocumented.

Joel Feinman, an attorney and key backer of the initiative, believes it’s the first voter-backed sanctuary city movement in the nation — every other one he could find came from legislation. Though the city says officers average just one immigration call to federal officers per month, Feinman says that’s too many and that the number isn’t reliable.

“We don’t know how often it happens, because records-keeping is notoriously lax,” he said Thursday.

The change also would prevent officers and other city employees from questioning detainees or people under arrest about their immigration status in hospitals, schools, churches or government buildings. It would require officers to document why they called federal authorities and to have at least two distinct reasons to believe someone is undocumented.

In an Oct. 8 memo to the mayor and City Council, City Manager Mike Ortega, City Attorney Mike Rankin and Police Chief Chris Magnus answered some questions about the initiative. Though the memo takes no position, it highlights a risk of enacting the changes to the city code.

One is that the Tucson Police Department could lose some or all of its $12 million in annual federal grants, which require cooperation with federal agencies and which the department has worked hard to preserve, the memo says.

“The Tucson Police Department’s General Orders were painstakingly written and implemented to strike a careful balance between complying with these federal requirements while minimizing TPD’s involvement with the enforcement of federal immigration law,” according to the memo.

Those careful actions allow the city to work within requirements of the grants and state law, it says.

The broad wording of the measure, which would require memoranda of understanding with any federal agency before Tucson police could cooperate, would apply not just to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol but also the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, they said.

The trio also hint that the measure solves a problem that may not exist.

The Police Department identified just 23 immigration checks in the 21 months ending in September 2019. Three of those resulted in a Border Patrol response, and just one resulted in Border Patrol taking the subject into custody. None ended with deportation, though one person is still in federal custody, the memo says.

Feinman countered that anyone who says there is no problem to solve is blind to what’s happening in detention centers in Tucson and elsewhere or with the Border Patrol, U.S. Attorney General William Barr, or President Donald Trump.

“It’s only a solution in search of a problem for people who don’t have undocumented immigrants in their lives,” Feinman said.

In an Oct. 9 lawsuit in Pima County Court, Feinman and other backers of the measure claimed Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, the three authors of the memo and City Councilman Steve Kozachik took a side on the issue using city resources, which is illegal in Arizona.

But Kozachik’s email newsletter and a January city memo simply laid out the consequences of the measure and were not the use of city resources to sway a vote, the city argued.

That lawsuit was dismissed Monday, though not on the merits. Superior Court Judge Brenden J. Griffith said only that he had no time to effectively rule before the election, Feinman said.

The Sanctuary Movement of the 1980 started at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church, whose pastor, the Rev. John Fife, sent a letter to the Immigration and Naturalization Service stating that he would break the law by inviting an undocumented Central American refugee to live in the church. Hundreds or thousands of refugees passed through Southside church, and the movement spread nationwide.

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