Sanctuary Cities Contentious for GOP

One dispute among Republicans in the debate about illegal immigration is whether candidates support so-called sanctuary policies that put limits on checking immigrants' legal status. There is growing support for cities to do more on immigration.

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Illegal immigration is a top issue for voters, especially Republicans, and Republicans mostly agree it's important to get tough. But there is one dispute on the subject of what are known as sanctuary policies; that's where cities set limits on how much one can check the legal status of an immigrant.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Many cities reject the term sanctuary and policies differ from place to place, but dozens of cities have some version of a don't-ask-don't-tell policy when it comes to illegal immigrants. New York City states to 1989, and it discourages police and other officials from asking about the legal status of anyone seeking city services.

In 1996, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani went to court to defend the policy, and that's led to questions like this at the recent CNN-YouTube debate.

(Soundbite of CNN-YouTube GOP debate)

Mr. ERNIE NARDI: I would like to know, if you become president, will you continue to aid and abet the flight of illegal aliens into this country?

Mr. ANDERSON COOPER (Moderator): Mayor Giuliani?

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York): Ernie, that was a very good question, and the reality is that New York City was not a sanctuary city.

LUDDEN: Giuliani said public health and safety was paramount. New York wants illegal immigrants to feel comfortable bringing their children to public clinics to get vaccinations or coming to police to report crimes. Like virtually all such policies, New York does have an exception - officials can report the legal status of those suspected of criminal activity.

(Soundbite of CNN-YouTube GOP debate)

Mr. GIULIANI: We reported thousands and thousands of names of illegal immigrants who committed crimes to the immigration service; they did not deport them.

LUDDEN: That wasn't good enough for former Massachusetts' governor, Mitt Romney.

(Soundbite of CNN-YouTube GOP debate)

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts): And the idea that they reported any illegal alien that committed a crime - how about the fact that people who are here illegally are violating the law? They didn't report everybody they found that was here illegally.

LUDDEN: The debate audience may have liked that idea, but many police departments don't. Hubert Williams heads the Police Foundation, a research and training institute.

Mr. HUBERT WILLIAMS (President, Police Foundation): Our problem is if they're going to go around the street checking people that they think is going to be illegal aliens, who are they going to pick up? People that look Latino, and that's discriminatory, and it will produce bad fruit for the law enforcement in the long run.

LUDDEN: Williams says the real issue is whether state and local police should use their own limited resources to do the federal government's job for it.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think that the federal government, which has enforcement responsibilities for immigration, can enforce the laws anywhere in the United States in sanctuary cities or not.

LUDDEN: But Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch says there is growing support for cities to do more on immigration, and Fitton says even if a local sanctuary policy allows police to report legal status in some cases, it doesn't mean that's what happens on the ground.

Mr. TOM FITTON (President, Chief Spokesman; Judicial Watch): If a beat cop in New York brought in to the Immigration Customs Enforcement on an immigration case without getting permission from his superiors, there'll be heck to pay, you can bet, and we know that's the case in Los Angeles, and I suspect that's the case in New York.

LUDDEN: Fitton's group is suing Los Angeles over its sanctuary policy. He says a 1996 law clearly says cities can't prohibit officials from reporting someone's immigration status. New York officials and others counter that the law doesn't require them to check and report legal status.

In a different tactic, presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson has suggested cutting off federal aid to sanctuary cities; that's led to attacks on Romney.

Several Massachusetts towns have such policies, but as governor, he didn't curtail state funding to them. Dozens of cities with some type of sanctuary policy will be watching to see how the lawsuit in Los Angeles plays out and which presidential candidates prevail.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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