Iowa City Council nixes ‘Sanctuary’ label but reaffirms hands-off policy on immigration enforcement

Photo by Adam Burke
Photo by Adam Burke
By Emma Husar and Lauren Shotwell

A resolution unanimously passed Tuesday by the Iowa City Council reaffirmed that no public resources would be devoted by the city police department to detecting undocumented immigrants. Council members noted that the move works to help maintain relationships between police officers and the community, ensuring that victims and witnesses of crimes feel comfortable reaching out to law enforcement.

A large contingent of community members came to the meeting in support of the resolution, including several Spanish-speaking individuals who, speaking through translators, noted that relationships with the police department have improved recently and the resolution helped them continue to feel secure in reaching out to the authorities.

The resolution notes that it falls to the federal government to regulate and enforce immigration laws, adding that no federal law requires local law enforcement to participate in those efforts. It includes an exception for public safety or instances when participation is required by federal law.

The initial December announcement of the consideration of a Sanctuary City-style resolution kicked off controversy, inspiring a landslide of letters to the city council both in support of the stance and in opposition. The final resolution passed Tuesday avoids the Sanctuary City label and takes pains to note that this policy merely reaffirms what the local police department is already doing.

The resolution would not restrict or hamper federal programs and policies already in place, such as the requirement that fingerprints of adults arrested or juveniles taken into custody for crimes other than simple misdemeanors be cross checked with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) database, notifying ICE that the individual has been arrested and detained. City officials and employees are also free to send and receive information to and from ICE.

Mazahir Salih, president of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, said in a press release that the center has been working for the past five years to improve trust between the police and immigrant communities.

“We feel there has been remarkable progress,” she said. “Tonight’s resolution sends an important message that the city will maintain its long tradition of recognizing that immigration enforcement is exclusively a federal matter — a tradition that has worked to build a safer, more inclusive community.”

Although the city council did receive many letters discouraging the passage of the resolution, most of the comments made publicly at the meeting were supportive of the move. Council Member Rockne Cole said that he wished some of the people who sent letters protesting the resolution would have felt welcomed to speak at the meeting. He said many people had expressed concerns about the impact the resolution would have on safety, but said the move should work to confirm the community’s focus on safety.

“We’re just reaffirming old-fashioned values,” Cole said. “It’s important to recognize that all belong here.”

Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton also spoke to address concerns expressed in emails and other communications to city council. He noted that many individuals expressed concerns about the measure encouraging the harboring of dangerous criminals. Throgmorton assured attendees that the goal of the resolution was to help combat crime by encouraging people, regardless of immigration status, to report crimes.

Avoiding the “Sanctuary City” Label

During discussions at the last city council work session on Jan. 3, the council decided not to use the Sanctuary City label.

“We don’t need a Sanctuary City status because our police have acted as a sanctuary city,” Councilman Terry Dickens said during yesterday’s meeting.


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In a Dec. 1 memo that first kicked off the official discussion, Mayor Jim Throgmorton noted that following the Nov. 8 election, many Iowa Citians had contacted the office to encourage the town to adopt the Sanctuary City label despite — or perhaps inspired by — statements by President-elect Donald Trump in which he pledged to cancel federal funding to Sanctuary Cities.

The use of the label inspired controversy, including a robocall campaign organized by the Des Moines-based Priorities for Iowa, Inc. — a nonpartisan issue advocacy group. The group also included a call to action on its website encouraging people to attend the Jan. 3 meeting and providing contact information for city hall and city council members.

These actions were criticized as those of an outsider meddling in local policy. In one press release from the Center for Worker Justice, the calls were cited as efforts to “drum up fear and anti-immigrant sentiment.”

“We refuse to be divided or distracted by politicians or corporate-funded groups that deride our neighbors and would pit us against each other for their own political gain,” the press release said.

However, Jimmy Centers, Priorities for Iowa executive director, said that the calls fell under the group’s mission to educate Iowans about important issues and advocate for sound policy.

“We regularly work to educate Iowans across the state on a variety of subjects through various mediums,” Centers said in an email. “On an issue of this magnitude, Iowans deserve to have their voices heard.”

This wasn’t the first time that the city discussed sanctuary cities. Back in 2011, the city also explored the possibility. The title was not adopted then either, but other measures, including a community ID program, have since been adopted to help make the city more welcoming to immigrant communities.

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