UP CLOSE: A sanctuary city in name or in policy?

A sanctuary city in name or in policy?

Published on April 11, 2017

At around 6 a.m. on June 6, 2007, New Haven resident Ivania Sotelo hurriedly dressed to answer her door. Moments later, seven uniformed agents whisked her from her house on Fillmore Street in handcuffs, leaving behind her 14-year-old son Jerry Sarmiento and her husband Samuel Sarmiento-Crespo.

According to an affidavit from Sarmiento-Crespo, seven agents in blue camouflage bullet vests repeatedly rang the doorbell and claimed to be looking for “a person from Guatemala,” pushing through as the door unlocked. Without providing any credentials, the officers canvassed Sotelo’s house for weapons and only presented a sheet of paper with a black-and-white photo that resembled Sotelo. Two days later, Sarmiento-Crespo visited his wife at a maximum-security facility in Maine.

The Sarmiento family was not the only one impacted in the 2007 Immigration Customs Enforcement raid, an operation that resulted in the arrest of 32 Fair Haven residents — despite ICE having only four court-issued warrants.

Kica Matos, a longtime local activist, heard about the raids in a meeting with former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, who served from 1994 to 2014. The two discussed how the city’s new resident card could make opening a bank account easier for undocumented immigrants.

“I could tell from the look on his face and the question that he asked that there was a raid going on,” Matos said. “One of the things that we knew for sure was that they planned to come back [because] one of the ICE agents said to one of the families that they would be back.”

After the raid, Matos said the Fair Haven neighborhood became desolate, adding that the experience was so jarring that one resident asked an activist to pick his children up from school for him because he was hiding inside a box in his closet, afraid to encounter ICE agents.

DeStefano, armed with a handful of affidavits collected from victims and eyewitnesses after the raid, said he called then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to report the operation as unlawful coercion. Chertoff announced the temporary suspension of raids in New Haven the following day — an announcement that, in DeStefano’s opinion, made New Haven into a sanctuary city.

But DeStefano acknowledged that this label is vague and politically charged.

“Sanctuary city” — an umbrella term that roughly covers municipalities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration agencies — has in the past months emerged as a focal point in both national and local political discourse. Amid conflicting national attitudes toward undocumented immigrants, the varying definitions of sanctuaries elude politicians, activists and immigrants alike, even though an explicit meaning seems more relevant now than ever.


President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to deport millions of criminal aliens. His Jan. 25 executive order, which aimed to ban sanctuary cities from applying for federal funding, defined such municipalities based on a legal distinction: whether a city willfully violates the federal statute 8 U.S.C. Section 1373.

This federal law, according to University of Denver law professor Christopher Lasch LAW ’96 who specializes in criminal and immigration law, forbids any party from setting up policies that would prevent local officials from communicating residents’ immigration status to federal officials.

But this definition of a sanctuary city is moot, he said. The vast majority of cities that say they have sanctuary city policies do not make any attempt to stop local officials from contacting federal immigration agents. Instead, sanctuary city policies tend to focus on allowing the local law enforcement to refuse to carry out ICE detainers, which are requests for local police to hold certain persons for an additional 48 hours to be released to ICE.

But in the Elm City, the New Haven Police Department has not gotten any such requests.

“ICE does not [use] our lock-up facility,” the NHPD spokesman David Hartman said. “We are not a federal holding facility.”

He added that sanctuary city is a “lowercase term” and does not have an unambiguous definition.

Aside from his executive order’s legal definition, Trump’s public speeches have broadened the scope of what it means to be a sanctuary city — to harbor criminals and blatantly flout the law. In a campaign speech in Arizona last August, he claimed that granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants and reducing federal raids would result in “millions more illegal immigrants, thousands more violent crimes and total chaos and lawlessness.”

Lasch disagrees.

“We constantly hear that sanctuary cities are defying and nullifying federal law,” he said. “Nothing could be further away from the truth. The only shred of argument that has been mustered by that point is this idea that cities violate 8 U.S.C. Section 1373.”

In spite of this narrow legal definition, its impact will send ripples to the lives of 11.3 million undocumented aliens in America. Theoretically, DeStefano said, the administration can deport all 11 million undocumented residents. But the country has neither the resources nor the ability to withstand the harm done to the economy and to the communities. According to a 2015 DataHaven report on immigration, there are about 14,460 undocumented aliens in the Greater New Haven area.


Six months before the 2007 Fair Haven raid, the NHPD adopted General Order 06-2, which prohibits its officers from inquiring into a resident’s immigration status during routine patrolling or investigations into civil crimes. By adopting this policy, the NHPD has been able to make residents who previously feel afraid to approach police actively cooperate with police investigations, said then-NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz.

Before the general order took effect, local activists like Matos said undocumented immigrants were often the targets of violent robberies and abuses because they were afraid to approach the police force when they were victimized. A year before General Order 06-2 was signed, undocumented immigrants could not deposit cash into bank accounts, as they had no proper identification.

As a result, City Hall, the NHPD and local activists pushed for the general order so that undocumented residents could enjoy equal police protection from workplace abuse or outright crime.

“We recognized that we needed to bring people out of the shadows and work with the police,” Ortiz said. “Our officers didn’t want to be viewed as treating certain segments of our public differently than they treated other members.”

He added that the general order also helped the city further distinguish its police force from federal and state law enforcement. As a regional entity, the NHPD is not trained to enforce national immigration regulations, and should not be put in a position to do so, Ortiz said.

DeStefano echoed Ortiz’s sentiment and said the NHPD’s job is to de-escalate conflicts and violent outbursts, rather than to enforce federal law. To DeStefano, the decision to separate the NHPD from federal immigration is not a political statement, but rather a solution to a crime-ridden city.

“This is called staying in your lane and doing what you do well and what’s your responsibilities and things for which you are held accountable,” DeStefano said.

Nevertheless, undocumented immigrants cannot know for certain that they are safe from federal raids. NHPD officers can still inquire into a resident’s immigration status if he or she is implicated in a criminal investigation.

According to NHPD acting Chief Anthony Campbell, local residents often need clarification that the NHPD has different policies when dealing with violations of civil law, as opposed to criminal law. Campbell explained that if the undocumented individual is a domestic abuse victim or committed civil offenses like overstaying work visas, NHPD officers are prohibited from asking his or her immigration status. If the individual, however, violated criminal statutes such as homicide, then immigration information will surface during the investigation, Campbell added.

The Elm City and other sanctuary cities’ policies also do not shield undocumented immigrants from legal immigration raids — when ICE agents have federal warrants and clearly identify themselves — because the federal government has jurisdiction over immigration issues, Ortiz said. But since 2007, there has not been another ICE raid.

Ortiz added that in the 2007 raid, ICE did not notify the NHPD and the Mayor’s Office, an act that does not violate any federal procedures. Nevertheless, Campbell said failing to notify local police departments about prospective federal operations violated professional courtesy. He added that letting local police departments know about federal operations beforehand can eliminate confusion and the possibility of local officers injuring federal agents or interfering with the operation, Campbell said.

“If ICE were to relay to us that they would be doing something, we are bound by confidentiality not to share that information with members of the public,” he said. “It would be helpful to us to know what is going on so that when the community starts to react to activities that are underway, we would know what is going on and provide assistance.”

Yet as Trump unveils more of his hardline immigration policies, undocumented immigrants around the country are questioning exactly what protections sanctuary cities can afford.

Larissa Martinez ’20, who revealed her undocumented status in her high school valedictorian speech, said the city needs to be transparent with its undocumented residents about the extent of their security. For her, Yale’s campus shields her from much of the anxiety that engulfs the larger New Haven community, she said.

“The only way that [New Haven] would be a sanctuary city is that if there are undocumented people,” she said. “So, if [the city] is not fully informing undocumented residents about the extent of their protection, then it is actually hurting the undocumented more than it is helping because it is bringing ICE right here.”

If undocumented residents do still face deportation, to what extent can New Haven’s sanctuary policies matter?


“For now, I see that it is calm. But tomorrow, we don’t know what is coming,” said Abel Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who has lived in Fair Haven since 1999.

When he finishes his work as a gardener, Sanchez said he sometimes attends meetings with the local immigrant advocacy group Unidad Latina en Acción to talk about what would happen if he were deported and forced to leave behind his three young children. To Sanchez, New Haven’s sanctuary city status means the NHPD refuses to collaborate with ICE.

John Lugo, who co-founded ULA in 2002, said that whether New Haven is truly a sanctuary city will be up for debate until the Elm City adopts concrete legislation that supports immigrant rights. For him, the Elm City Resident Card initiative is the centerpiece of sanctuary city policies in New Haven. All residents, regardless of documentation, can apply for a New Haven ID card, which provides access to many public services, such as the New Haven libraries and public school education.

The program was several years in the making and required the efforts of local activists. Matos, who was executive director for the local activist group JUNTA for Progressive Action, said immigrant rights advocates were focusing on helping undocumented immigrants by volunteering before they realized that enforceable city policies were the answer to their concerns.

JUNTA and ULA consulted Yale Law School’s Community Lawyering Clinic on the legality of their policy proposals and authored a report based on the clinic’s positive feedback in 2005. Titled “A City to Model,” the report recommended creating municipal ID cards, separating the NHPD from federal immigration agencies, and establishing an office for immigrant affairs at City Hall, among other suggestions, Matos said.

After a series of conversations between DeStefano’s administration and the community, the Board of Alders voted almost unanimously in favor of the municipal-issued residency cards on June 4, 2007.

Sanchez said he uses his Elm City Resident Card on a regular basis, including when he picks his kids up from school. Though Sanchez also uses the ID for bank appointments, he had to open bank accounts with other credentials as no local banks accept an Elm City Resident Card as the only ID.

Accepting other suggestions that the 2005 Law School clinic report proposed, City Hall also translated all its major documents into Spanish to service a wider community.

But for some, this is not enough.

Admitting the difficulty of serving a transient city population, Lugo criticized Mayor Toni Harp’s administration for not updating the city’s sanctuary policies even though she is lauded as the face of New Haven’s immigrant-friendly reputation. He further accused the mayor for being detached with the undocumented immigrant community and for failing to establish an institutional relationship between City Hall and activist groups. According to Lugo, he is often referred to various departments when he tries to recommend policies, such as the city’s Vital Statistics office and Community Services Administration, neither of which has offered substantive assistance.

City Hall spokesman Laurence Grotheer countered Lugo’s allegations and said the idea of creating an immigrant affairs department within local government violates the federal government’s jurisdiction over the issue. Because immigration falls under federal purview, the standard procedure is to refer any issues to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-New Haven, who acts as an information outlet for the federal government.

He added that the mayor is integrated in the immigrant community, citing a sanctuary city committee spearheaded by Harp’s Chief of Staff Tomas Reyes to indicate her “high-level involvement” in discussions about how to better defend immigrant rights in raids. This committee, established last November, includes representatives from City Hall like Reyes, the NHPD, the Board of Education, JUNTA and ULA, according to Lugo. Longtime ULA volunteers like Fatima Rojas, Jésus Morales-Sanchez and Lugo are on the committee.

But Lugo said the task force was only put together when city activists expressed discontent after the mayor publicly reaffirmed New Haven’s sanctuary city status on Dec. 14 last year without consulting community members. Compared to other mayors from the state who want to work with immigration agents, however, Lugo said it is still important for Harp to say that New Haven is a sanctuary city.

“‘Sanctuary city’ is just a name,” Lugo said. “It doesn’t do anything for the people. Maybe it is time to go back to the original idea and start believing in the Elm City Resident Card project.”


Under a renewed national wave of attacks toward the immigrant community, Lugo said the task force is pushing for a two-pronged advocacy effort, focusing on transferring guardianship for children whose parents are undocumented and educating the public about immigrants’ constitutional rights.

With the help from Law School clinics, the task force is putting together forms for undocumented parents to sign in order to transfer the power of attorney in the event of their deportation, Lugo said. Because many immigrant families have mixed legal status — young children are native-born U.S. citizens while their parents are undocumented — Lugo explained that designating a proxy will leave the children in safe hands if their parents are detained.

Another prominent issue among the public, he added, is a basic awareness of the rights that are afforded every member of society. Hence, ULA has been hosting around 10 workshop sessions around the city to educate residents about how to minimize the possibility of being arrested by federal immigration officers.

For example, immigrants can refuse to open the door unless there is a court-issued warrant and proper law enforcement credentials, a tactic that counteracts ICE’s usual routine of breaking through doors, Lugo said. ULA also has been passing out posters that list an immigrant’s rights and encouraging families to tape these cautionary tips by their doors.

“The main task of our group is for people to understand that they have rights,” Lugo added. “Immigrants feel like they have rights but they don’t know how to [enunciate] them. The main one is not to engage in any communication with any law enforcement agencies.”

Given New Haven’s past record of not cooperating with federal deportation operations and instituting protective policies, all stakeholders are on alert for future raids. DeStefano said the city must prepare for a massive federal raid by coordinating a transparent and public rapid response system. Grotheer also said City Hall has “a heightened awareness” that there may be “increased levels of activity” by the federal agents.

According to a February statement from Secretary of DHS John Kelly, ICE launched a series of targeted enforcement operations from coast to coast. Its officers operating in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Antonio and New York City arrested more than 680 undocumented individuals, 75 percent of whom were criminal aliens. In a February Reuters article, David Marin, director of enforcement and removal at ICE’s Los Angeles field office, called the recent operations “an enforcement surge” that fall under the agency’s routine operation.

Snuffing out cynicism from those who consider sanctuary cities as futile efforts, Matos insisted that how a city responds to federal law enforcement makes a significant difference because ICE has not returned since 2007, though Grotheer cautioned against this kind of speculation.

“Can we stop ICE from carrying out these enforcement actions as they are carrying them out? Probably not. Can we put up fierce resistance? Absolutely. Can we hold them accountable? We did that in 2007 and we have every intention of doing so,” Matos said.

New Haven activists, wanting to expand the sphere of sanctuary jurisdictions, are assisting neighboring towns who also wish to develop their immigrant-friendly policies. Morales-Sanchez, a University of Connecticut student and a ULA volunteer, said there has been an increased interest in the state to institute sanctuary policies despite differences in legislative processes between jurisdictions. His group is working with Yale Law School clinics and putting together a package to introduce New Haven’s policies such as the resident ID cards and NHPD’s general order so that other towns can customize them to their local government.

“Each city has to do work on their own because we don’t know how their town works,” Morales-Sanchez said. “Overall, it’s a very general first-step kind of thing instead of instructions. Almost like a template, people can modify to fit the necessities in their hometowns.”

Morales-Sanchez said Bloomfield passed a city council resolution two months ago that it will not assist programs or operations that discriminate based on immigration status. He added that other smaller jurisdictions like Mansfield passed “symbolic” resolutions to support immigrant rights because they do not control the local police departments.

According to activists who interact closely with the immigrant community, people fear the prospect of another raid and are on a constant watch for any uniformed officers that they suspect to be immigration agents. Lugo said ULA set up a hotline a month ago for people to report possible sightings of ICE operations, and the phone has been ringing every day — though all of them so far have been false alarms.

To illustrate the undocumented immigrants’ apprehension about deportation, Lugo said they are wary of anyone who wears a uniform. An undocumented resident almost charged at a friend of Lugo’s on the street because the friend was wearing his workman uniform. He added that agents from Customs and Border Protection — ICE’s counterpart that patrols at the border — have been conducting counterterrorism exercises at Union Station. Though CBP does not carry out deportations, Lugo said their presence sends the immigrants into panic.

Sanchez, on the other hand, expressed calm and acceptance as he faces the threat of being deported. He said he has always thought about what might happen when he is sent back to his home country, but the only worry that he has is for his two sons and daughter. Holding steadfast to his belief as a devoted Christian, Sanchez said he places trust in God.

“It is what it is,” Sanchez added. “Sometimes I do think, we are here now. There is nothing we can do if worst comes to worst.”


Despite the vagueness of the legal and legislative definitions of sanctuary cities, the threats that these municipalities and their residents face are explicit. Other than promises to deport a record number of criminal aliens, Trump threatened to defund sanctuary jurisdictions under his definition, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last month that the Justice Department will predicate federal grants upon state compliance with federal immigration law.

According to Grotheer, City Hall has been receiving inquiries into how New Haven will defend itself from the attacks on its immigrant-friendly policies since Nov. 9, the day after Trump won the presidential election. He said Harp has asked the city’s Corporation Counsel Office to prepare for legal comebacks should there be any attempt by the federal government to punish New Haven for adhering to its tradition of cultural assimilation.

Depending on what the Trump administration chooses to do, he added that the mayor may consider a spectrum of responses, ranging from joining other cities in a broad-based coalition or specific request for a relief. For the country’s executive branch to cut federal funding, which is appropriated by the legislative branch, perhaps raises the issue around the separation of power, Grotheer said.

New Haven’s sanctuary city status, Grotheer said, was a label first given by the DHS because no city ordinance independently proclaims New Haven as sanctuary. When Harp held a press conference last December to reaffirm sanctuary city status, Grotheer claimed that the mayor was referencing it as a colloquial term.

New Haven is not the only city that is questioning the legality of Trump’s executive order to defund the sanctuary municipalities that the White House has identified. According to Lasch, there are three ongoing lawsuits from San Francisco, Seattle and Santa Clara County, California, that attempt to clarify the scope and legitimacy of the Jan. 25 executive order. Other than the argument in which the White House and the DOJ are reaching beyond their governmental powers, Lasch said a blanket denial of all federal funding would violate the 10th Amendment, which delineates federal versus state rights.

In DeStefano’s opinion, the entire country is complicit in the emigration of a workforce that continues to support the national economy and businesses.

“We took advantage of these folks. Everyone knew they were here in increasing number,” DeStefano said. “It’s not like you woke up one morning and suddenly realized that there are 11 million folks here who are not properly documented.”

Gabriel Betancur contributed translations.

Correction, April 15: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the relationship between JUNTA and ULA and the Yale Law School. In fact, JUNTA and ULA authored the 2005 report in consultation with the Law School, not the other way around.


Powered by