Republicans in the Florida House are using bad information and suspect legal reasoning to pass a bill that would punish so-called “sanctuary cities.” That is a loose term often recklessly used to describe local governments that do not cooperate wholesale with the federal government on immigration cases. The measure would impose fines and other penalties on “sanctuaries” and expose local taxpayers to huge civil damages. This approach is an affront to the law, reason and the principle of home rule.
The measure prohibits any local law enforcement agency from having virtually any policy or practice that would impede cooperation with immigration authorities. The aim is to clear away any hurdle for local police and sheriffs departments to honor federal requests to detain suspected illegal immigrants. Any community found to meet the “sanctuary” definition would face court damages and civil fines up to $5,000 a day.
The term “sanctuary city” is used to reflect the policies of local jails, which typically are operated by the county sheriff. There is no uniform standard for what constitutes a sanctuary, and no official list of those cities and counties across the country. Still, a staff analysis of HB 697 points to six Florida counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco, as not fully cooperating with the federal government.
But that analysis is based on data nearly three years old and a report on the website of a Washington, D.C., think tank that favors stricter immigration, which Tampa Bay area sheriffs say is either misleading or flat wrong. The report says Pinellas will not honor detention requests, while Hillsborough requires a warrant or deportation order. But the sheriffs in both counties say that information is false and that they process detention requests even if federal officials provide only probable cause to hold a suspect. Pasco’s sheriff does the same, and his office has called its “sanctuary” moniker “absurd” and “irresponsible.”
The sheriffs are right to push back against the label. That’s why San Francisco and other local jurisdictions have sued to block an executive order by the Trump administration, issued in January, that would target these “sanctuary cities” in much of the same way as the Florida bill.
The House bill goes further, including a snitch provision that requires government employees to report any violation of the law. Anyone failing to do so could be removed from office. The state could also bar local jurisdictions from receiving state grants, and victims could sue communities if they were harmed by someone shielded by a sanctuary policy.
The gaps in the immigration system are more on the federal side, and if the Legislature wants to help address the problem, it should not start by painting local police officers on the front lines as the enemy. Sheriffs are right to want a legally defensible and practical way to cooperate with the federal government. It is not too much to ask for an orderly process in handling detention requests. The bigger question is what federal authorities can do to become better partners.