There Is No Such Thing as Sanctuary

As of October 2015, sanctuary status was claimed by 326 counties, 32 cities and four states, according to Philippe Weisz, managing attorney of HIAS Pennsylvania. Despite these numbers, Weisz explained that there is actually no such legal entity as “sanctuary,” since the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operates freely. Weisz spoke during the inaugural session of HIAS Pennsylvania’s education series Welcoming the Stranger: Considering Immigration and Refugee Issues from a Jewish Perspective. The series provides background into American law and policy on these issues, as well as teachings on Jewish values.

A better identification than sanctuary city for Philadelphia is Fourth Amendment city, meaning that Philadelphia demands that ICE obtain a warrant before the city will turn over individuals convicted of first- or second-degree violent felonies. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution affirms that “the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated.” Upholding this right encourages traditional communal policing, prevents costly diversion of limited police resources and avoids civil penalties for localities violating the Constitution. This right is extended to all residents, regardless of legal or immigration status.

Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Sen. Pat Toomey has opposed the city’s Fourth Amendment status, claiming that it forbids local police from cooperating with federal immigration officials. This is not true, said Weisz. Toomey has claimed that the requirement for a warrant is absurd, arguing that if the Constitution required a warrant for all arrests, the police would never stop a suspect. This is false, said Weisz, because the examples offered by Toomey did not demonstrate a hampering of police actions. Finally, Toomey’s bill — the Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act, which was filibustered in the Senate in July and reintroduced this year as Senate Bill 87 — offers an exemption that prevents jurisdictions from losing federal funding for failing to provide information about undocumented crime victims and witnesses. Weisz considered this exemption to be naive because victims and witnesses would simply not report crimes if they knew that the local police shared any information with ICE.

The budget for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is $4 billion more than the combined budget of all the other federal law enforcement agencies. Now, the president is asking local police to stretch their resources and cooperate with DHS and its agency ICE. Previously, ICE had authority to summarily deport any individual who had been in the U.S. for less than 14 days and was detained within 100 miles of the country’s land borders. Now, the rule has been extended to any undocumented individual anywhere who is apprehended within two years of arrival. These individuals can be deported immediately, without the right to appear before a judge.

Michael Matza of The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that there have been “248 alleged ‘criminal aliens’ arrested since the start of this month — an average of 21 a day — in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and West Virginia.”

We have a broken immigration system, said Weisz, with over 11 million undocumented individuals without a path to citizenship. These include people who are long-term residents and who have family members that are naturalized citizens.

Juan Alvarenga is a former client of HIAS Pennsylvania who spoke of his journey from Honduras to legal residency in the United States, courtesy of Weisz’s intervention for the awarding of a U visa for crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement. Alvarenga was already living here for 10 years and running a beloved shoe repair shop when he decided to report a crime, despite his lack of legal status. This was not an easy decision, and it was one that his daughter and his wife would not have endorsed if the anti-sanctuary policies proposed by the president and Sen. Toomey were in place.

The word “sanctuary” comes from the Latin for sacred.The biblical origin of sanctuary is arei miklat, which applied to people guilty of accidental murder. An example from biblical times would be if an ax head flew off the handle and killed someone. To avoid a revenge killing, the responsible party could flee to a city of refuge, explained Rabbi Alan Iser, who teaches at Villanova University, Saint Joseph’s University and Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, and who is also a board member of HIAS Pennsylvania. In contrast, Rabbi Iser pointed to Sodom as the biblical anti-sanctuary city, explaining that a biblical midrash depicts Lot’s daughter Paltith (ironically meaning refuge) as being killed for nurturing a poor person.

Cited 36 times in the Bible are the laws of the ger. Although the word ger has since been defined as a stranger or a convert, in the Bible, it was the term for a non-citizen, who was included among the most vulnerable of people, along with the widow and orphan. Another rabbinic term is ger toshav, a resident alien who observes all seven Noachide laws (Seven Laws of Noah). The noted rabbinic authority Maimonides wrote that these people are also promised a share in heaven. According to Rabbi Iser, the modern equivalent of the ger toshav could be the Dreamers or any law-abiding aliens.

There is also a law in the Torah against returning fugitive slaves (Deuteronomy 23:16-17). Jeremiah is known for chastising Jews for their suffering and attributing it to their non-compliance with this law. Rabbi Iser gave the example of Eritrea as a place where slavery continues today, where hundreds of thousands of people have lived in servitude.

Another relevant tenet of Jewish law is the prohibition against tale-bearing. There is no tale-bearing among our own people, lest we create enmity between individuals. In the context of the immigration debate, the equivalent to tale-bearing would be reporting undocumented immigrants.

In addition, oppression by words, ona’at devarim, is mentioned in a discussion of appropriate profit for merchants. We are not to taunt a convert for his or her past. The modern equivalent, said Rabbi Iser, is not to taunt immigrants.

The question arises as to what governs when Jewish law and American law are in conflict. Rabbi Iser explained that observance of the law of the land, dina d’malkhuta dina (Aramaic: דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא‎‎), is valid only when governmental law does not violate Jewish principles, such as working on Shabbat.

Since 1996, under Clinton’s administration, there has been a draconian upsurge in the apprehension and deportation of undocumented aliens. With deportation considered to be a civil matter, the police do not require any warrants, and most people are too frightened and ignorant of their rights to refuse entry to the police. Once inside an abode, if they don’t find the individual they’re seeking, the police often round up the current residents as “collateral arrests.” Once in custody, unlike for criminal cases, the detainees are not privileged to have court-appointed legal representation, thus the occurrence of children who face an immigration judge without a lawyer or guardian present. Under the Obama administration, over 2.7 million people were deported from 2009 through 2015.

What’s new during the Trump administration is the pervasiveness of hateful rhetoric in the public sphere. This, in turn, has galvanized people who have not previously been active politically. The New York Times reported on a chef who volunteered to serve as guardian for the children of some of his employees, should these parents be arrested and deported. At Main Point Books in Wayne — where I work when I’m not writing — we now have a table displaying books of dissent, including Sinclair Lewis’s satire It Can’t Happen Here and George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, as well as books on activists, agitators, and provocateurs. We also have how-to titles on citizen protests.

During the HIAS program, Valeri Harteg, HIAS-PA’s refugee education coordinator, reported on the orientation for the New Sanctuary Movement in which the participants rotated in role-playing the characters of undocumented alien and immigration enforcement officer. She also quoted the view that some ICE officers may not agree with the current immigration policy. Rabbi Iser later rebutted this view by citing the Nuremberg trials, which demonstrated that the defense of “doing one’s job” is not an excuse for immoral behavior.

“Do we allow everyone in?” I posed to Weisz and moderator Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania. Miller-Wilson said that we’re talking about freedom of movement, which is a right cherished by all Americans — the right to live where they choose. Weisz responded by describing our system as broken, saying that we live in a society where we enjoy strawberries and tomatoes in the winter at a low price, but we do not address the plight of the farm workers; we benefit from the labor of nannies, housekeepers and janitors, without concern for their welfare. Linda Brock, longtime volunteer for HIAS Pennsylvania, took this argument in another direction: she added that we are quick to dispose of our material things because we do not value the work that went into making them.

Miller-Wilson offered the following suggestions for action: lobby our legislators, including with postcard-writing sessions; educate ourselves and our community; and prepare for the long haul until the next legislative elections. For inspiration, Rabbi Iser recommended the film Weapons of the Spirit, about the small French Protestant town of Le Chambon which protected Jewish children and adults from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. (Alas, it is not available from Netflix, Amazon or the Lower Merion Library system.) This remarkable story was also told in the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There, as well as in a more recent book on the subject, A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives in World War II.

Like this program on sanctuary cities, each session of the HIAS Pennsylvania series brings together a panel of experts to educate and frame our understanding of important issues for our city and our nation.


The schedule for future sessions of the HIAS Pennsylvania series is available here. If your synagogue or organization would like to host a live-streamed viewing event, please contact Daniella Scruggs.


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