Our Opinion: 'Sanctuary' semantics shouldn't hold up good legislation

Legislation on Beacon Hill effectively making Massachusetts a "sanctuary state" would protect local and state law enforcement officers from being dragged into federal immigration issues where they risk being compromised. However, the word "sanctuary" is a loaded one that is a misnomer in this case, a misnomer that should not but may contribute to sinking this worthy effort.

The concept of sanctuary cities or states goes back thousands of years and through all manner of religions that established areas, often churches, where those who fear persecution were protected. It is not clear how the term came to be associated with immigration law but it could be interpreted by some as an effort to enable illegal immigrants, including those accused of crimes, to escape justice. This is not the case.

Immigration is strictly a federal responsibility, and sanctuary city or state laws would not change that. Laws before the Legislature define the civil rights of minority residents and prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in the pursuit of illegal immigrants or in the building of a Muslim registry. Pittsfield Democrat Adam Hinds co-sponsored the Senate version of this legislation and North Adams Democrat Gailanne Cariddi co-sponsored the House version.

The Trump administration says its immigration crackdown is necessary to defend the nation against terrorism and to protect jobs for American citizens. Illegal immigrants, however, have not launched acts of domestic terror, and American businesses, farming most notably, would be crippled by the loss of immigrant workers. The administration has not made a case for involving state and local law enforcement agencies in enforcing immigration laws, and federal agencies like ICE are having it both ways by reminding state and local agencies that immigration is strictly within their purview while effectively deputizing those agencies to assist them in their duties.

Besides breaking their own rules about federal exclusivity, the federal agencies are undermining the credibility of law enforcement officials within immigrant communities, making it difficult for them to pursue criminal activities in those communities. It could be argued that the federal agencies would be creating sanctuary cities for criminals by compromising the independence of state and local law enforcement.

Similar efforts like those being attempted in the state Legislature have been accomplished or proposed in the Berkshires. Stockbridge Police Chief Darrell Fennelly, for example, has offered guidelines declaring that his department does not investigate potential immigration law violations because that is the duty of the federal government. Governor Baker opposes the state initiative on immigration, arguing this should be left to individual communities. Towns and cities can certainly do this, but a state law is far preferable to a piece-by-piece effort throughout the state.

A third bill that would block the use of state resources to implement agreements with ICE to train state or correctional officers in immigration law enforcement appears to have been buried in the House Ways and Means Committee. The reason appears to be the unfortunate shorthand reference to it as a "sanctuary" bill.

"I think there were some concerns relative to the possible interpretation by some that they felt it could be interpreted as a sanctuary city, town, state bill," House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the State House News Service. "I'm not sure if those who proposed the bill saw it that way, so that's the type of language situation we're taking a look at."

That is as clear an acknowledgement as any state official is likely to make that the biggest drawback to laws clarifying the roles of state and local officials in immigration law enforcement is a simple matter of semantics. The speaker is correct that the backers of this bill, and the backers of the other two bills for that matter, do not see their legislation as protection for those who do not deserve it. Rather than consign the bill to committee limbo and allowing opponents to successfully define the legislation as a "sanctuary bill," we urge the speaker to clarify the "language situation" that appears to be unduly concerning some House members so they will understand the true intent of the legislation.

Like Governor Baker, Speaker DeLeo would prefer to pass the buck on immigration procedures down to the state's cities and towns. Keeping local and state officials from being compromised by perhaps overzealous federal immigration agencies is not a task the state should be reluctant to take on. And this important effort should not be sidetracked simply because of a misleading description of these proposed state laws as "sanctuary" legislation.


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