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Kathleen Arnold + DePaul University

Kathleen Arnold is the director of the Refugee and Forced Migration program at DePaul University.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang

What does it mean for Chicago to be a sanctuary city?

In August 2022, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent the first bus of migrants to Chicago, he said in a statement that the asylum-seekers arriving at the Texas border would “receive resources from a sanctuary city with the capacity to serve them.”

About a year later, with Chicago’s capacity to shelter thousands of migrants stretched thin, some City Council members are proposing measures to weaken or repeal sanctuary status here.

But one expert says the term “sanctuary city” has been misused, and that lawmakers, the public and the media conflate the term with policies that provide public benefits and resources.

WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang spoke with Kathleen Arnold, director of the Refugee and Forced Migration program at DePaul University. She discusses whether repealing Chicago’s sanctuary status would stop the flow of migrants.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us what sanctuary designations do.

A sanctuary locality — whether state, county or state — ordinance is based on noncompliance with ICE, which is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

They’re a federal-level policing agency that has been authorized to police immigration status without the normal checks and balances or the normal upholding of the constitution. So sanctuary localities pledge not to cooperate with unconstitutional policing. There has to be proof or some sort of dire emergency with proof in order for that cooperation to happen.

How has the term come to mean something more, like a city that will take in and help undocumented immigrants?

I think there’s an overuse of the term and a misunderstanding of what it does. I was going through different statements by Govs. Abbott and [Ron] DeSantis, and they make this false correlation that these refugee flows or migrant flows are caused by sanctuary. You can see it in a number of statements — they might not use the word “cause,” but they are directly correlating the two things.

Here in Chicago, sanctuary status goes back to 1985, when then-Mayor Harold Washington issued an executive order. What purpose did this sanctuary status serve back then?

Back then there was a recognition that basically immigration policy is considered foreign policy by the [U.S.] Supreme Court. What that allows is more or less federal policing agents to act outside of the Constitution because it’s considered foreign policy. People even in the United States who have been residents in this country are treated as nonpersons if they interact with federal agents. And so the sanctuary localities that sprang up in the 1980s were opposing this extra-constitutional policing and saying, “No, we’re going to treat all residents according to constitutional or democratic principles.”

Republican lawmakers say sanctuary cities are not following the law. But you’ve said sanctuary status actually does uphold the Constitution, correct?

Yes. So basically, the 14th Amendment was developed to protect people who could not vote. So it was introduced for people who didn’t have legal status to protect what is now called their personhood. Ironically, when Republican governors like Gov. Abbott and Gov. DeSantis argued that they’re upholding the Constitution, they are violating the Constitution in at least two ways. They are treating people who are arrivals as if they’re illegal without any sort of proof. Number two, they’re violating the refugee protocol that is part of the U.S. law and migration policy. Number three, they are forcibly transporting them with misinformation and/or not giving them much of a choice. So they are coercive circumstances that some people have called trafficking. In those three ways, those are more serious offenses than people simply arriving at the border seeking help.

Locally, some Chicago City Council members have proposed measures to weaken or even take steps to repeal this sanctuary status. What are they trying to accomplish?

There are a few things: One is, perhaps there’s a completely political impetus to this. I think they’re also trying to get people against migrants and not understand that basically, if you get rid of sanctuary ordinances, you stop protecting people. They will not be able to report a crime, they will be afraid to go to schools, they will be afraid to seek medical help until it’s an emergency. And very often, this means sometimes not seeking help for your citizen children. But I think what one of the things they want to do is to basically take rights away, and we don’t want to take rights away from average people who are part of our communities.

Would repealing sanctuary status actually stop the flow of Venezuelan migrants?

Absolutely not. One thing does not lead to the other. People did not flee Venezuela because they heard that we’re welcoming in Chicago. Sanctuary ordinances simply uphold the Constitution.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.

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