CLEVELAND -- "Sanctuary" once was one of the most comforting (and most easily understood) words in the English language: a holy place; a place of refuge; somewhere you would be safe.
As with so much in this era of social upheaval, that notion has been turned upside down. The word has become a battleground ... brandished as political protest on one side; replete with threats of withheld federal funds and jailed elected officials on the other.
Earlier this month, the good folks on Cleveland Heights City Council were casting about for a way to register their objection to President Donald Trump's executive order to temporarily restrict immigration from seven primarily Muslim countries. So they spent a couple of meetings considering whether to declare themselves a "Sanctuary City."
The council ultimately decided that calling Cleveland Heights a "Welcoming City" would get the job done, without running afoul of Trump's threat to deny federal funding to sanctuary cities.
Cleveland Heights opts for "Welcoming City," as opposed to "Sanctuary" status on immigration
And also, there was that other problem:
"I'm still not sure what it means to be a 'Sanctuary City,'" said Councilwoman Melissa Yasinow after two weeks of head-scratching.
She is not alone.
There actually is no accepted legal definition for the term, but it usually indicates a city that has instructed its safety forces to limit cooperation with federal immigration agencies. That often means instructing cops doing routine police work not to inquire as to whether a person is in the country legally, and a refusal to detain immigrants here illegally so that they can be deported.
Cities that balk at helping to round up illegals are not flouting the law. The federal government - not the state or local folks - is responsible for enforcing immigration law.
But routine checks of immigrant status during traffic stops, for instance, are completely within the purview of local cops. And it is perfectly legal for the local authorities to detain somebody they discover is in the country illegally until federal authorities can be summoned.
So while it is easy to understand why somebody might disagree with President Trump's order to suspend immigration, it is more difficult to fathom why anyone would think it is a good idea for a city to instruct its law officers to not help apprehend and detain people who are here unlawfully. Isn't that something that cops want to do naturally? Shouldn't they be encouraged to do so?
Our own editorial board jumped into the fray on the wrong side last week. In an editorial that dismissed criticism of sanctuary cities, we used the issue to slap State Treasurer (and announced 2018 U.S. Senate candidate) Josh Mandel around for his support of a proposed bill that would ban them in Ohio. The proposal would also hold local officials who defy the ban liable for any crimes committed in their municipalities by undocumented immigrants.
Indulging in a little mind-reading, the editorial charged that the real reason Mandel backed the idea was to further his political ambitions (it's not possible that he just believes sanctuary cities to be a bad idea?). But if he is doing it for political purposes, one wonders why he would think his support would help his quest for the Senate. Could it be that a lot of citizens share his opinion on this issue? And is his support of them "craven," as the headline of our editorial on cleveland.com charged?
Bid to ban Ohio sanctuary cities a craven political ploy: editorial
Defenders of the sanctuary cities idea say that there is a good law enforcement reason for it. Fear of being questioned about immigration status might deter crime witnesses or victims from helping police. An interesting theory: We don't want to question and apprehend people who are actually here unlawfully, because doing so might make them less inclined to possibly help us solve crimes they might or might not witness.
Defenders also argue that undocumented immigrants commit relatively few crimes.
So, what number is acceptable?
Suppose you had been the man walking hand in hand with his daughter on a San Francisco pier in 2015 when she was shot and killed by a man with a long criminal history who had been detained and deported five times but set free because San Francisco is a sanctuary city?
Kathryn Steinle's killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, had been in federal custody awaiting his sixth deportation, but was sent to the San Francisco Sheriff's department because he had an outstanding drug-related warrant. He was not prosecuted, and set free. Less than three months later, Steinle was dead.
Closer to home, suppose you had been Margaret Kostelnik of Concord Township?Margaret KostelnikCity of Willoughby, File
Lake County Sheriff's deputies discovered during a traffic stop that Juan Razo was in the United States illegally, and detained him on July 7, 2015. Painesville is not a sanctuary city, but Razo was released after the sheriff's department said border agents declined to detain him, which federal authorities denied.
Twenty days later, Razo raped and murdered the 60-year-old Kostelnik in her home.
If our federal authorities and local safety forces had been doing their jobs - serving and protecting, as they say - both these women would still be alive.
Regarding sanctuary cities, it is unfathomable to me why law enforcement officers at any level would not do all they can to arrest, detain and deport people who are here illegally.
I guess Razo and Lopez-Sanchez would have been "welcome" in Cleveland Heights. But not where I live.
Ted Diadiun is a member of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.
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