Biggest problem with ‘sanctuary’ is its lack of clarity

March 29, 2017

As a kid playing hide and seek, the concept of “sanctuary” was easy to understand; make it back to a designated spot before being seen and you were safe. Your biggest fear was another neighborhood kid giving up your hiding spot.

Or in my case, our family dog getting out and tracking me down thanks to the Jolly Ranchers I kept in my pocket.

The concept of “sanctuary” has been around for thousands of years and can be traced as far back as the Old Testament, when the Book of Numbers commanded a selection of “six Cities of Refuge” where perpetrators of unintentional harm could claim asylum.

This continued in 392 A.D., when Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius set up sanctuaries under church control — a proclamation that lasted until 1621 A.D., when the general right of sanctuary for churches in England was abolished.

Now, more than 300 years later, it’s a term that has resurfaced within our national dialogue as communities across the nation debate its meaning within the constructs of local, state and federal government as it relates to protecting the rights of those living illegally within the U.S. 

This includes our own Florence City Council, where the proposal of a city ordinance defining its stance on the protection of individuals, similar to an ordinance recently passed by the Eugene City Council, polarized Florence counselors during a March 22 work session.

Since then, it’s become a topic that hints at a divide within our own community as we argue the merits of a term which, ironically, has no official definition within our federal government. It doesn’t help that even those in our nation’s capitol don’t seem to have a clear idea of what defines a sanctuary city, regardless of which side of the aisle they’re on.

During the 2008 GOP race for the presidential nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney accused former New York City mayor Rudi Giuliani of running a sanctuary city, to which Giuliani accused Romney of running a sanctuary governor’s mansion.

Or put another way:

“I know you are, but what am I?”

Seven years later in self-proclaimed sanctuary city San Francisco, following the tragic shooting death of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle by illegal immigrant and repeat felon Juan Lopez-Sanchez, then Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton told CNN that she “had absolutely no support for a city that ignores deportation rules.”

Yet, the following day, Clinton told reporters that she believed “…sanctuary cities further public safety and has defended those policies for many years.”

The debate and posturing continues today with little reason to believe we’ll get any clear definition from our nation’s capitol anytime soon.

Which is maybe the way it’s supposed to be?

The one thing all levels of government agree on is that immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility. That means state and local law enforcement officials reserve the right to decide to what extent they are willing to cooperate with the federal government on immigration enforcement.

In 1987, the message from Oregon was pretty clear when it passed Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 181.850, which “prohibits law enforcement officers at the state, county or municipal level from enforcing federal immigration laws that target people based on race or ethnic origin, as long as those individuals are not suspected of any criminal activities.”
The argument from Washington, D.C., of course, is that being here illegally constitutes “criminal activity.”

The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are willing to define anyone living in our community without proper documentation as being criminal.

Or, we can decide against being that neighborhood kid who gives away others’ “hiding” spot in what could become a real-life hide and seek that is anything but fun and games.


Ned Hickson is an syndicated columnist with News Media Coporation and is editor-in-chief at Siuslaw News in Florence, Ore.

Write to him at

Published by

Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

26 thoughts on “Biggest problem with ‘sanctuary’ is its lack of clarity”

  1. As always Ned, a thought provoking piece. I fear we have far too many of those kids in leadership roles, giving up hiding spots of others. While hiding on their own.

  2. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are willing to define anyone living in our community without proper documentation as being criminal.

    Let’s not play games with words.

    The question is not lack of documentation, it is how to deal with people who are in the country illegally. These people have broken the law and they are subject to deportation.


    However….we have allowed this situation to exist for years and have allowed the number of illegal immigrants to grow into the many millions and now large portions of our population, often comprising entire neighborhoods, are subject to deportation.

    In a both a practical sense and human sense, the problem is now beyond law enforcement.

    It is not only wise and just but practical for local law enforcement to adopt a don’t ask, don’t tell policy toward illegal immigration. This allows the local police to interact with everyone in the community without victims or witnesses fearing the law enforcement.

    But there is another consideration….

    In popular fiction, where do desperadoes flee? In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne fled to Mexico. Thelma and Louise were headed there too. So ask yourself, if you were a criminal fleeing from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salavdor, where do you go?

    As much as good people would like to deny it, there is a serious problem with a nasty criminal element among illegal immigrants. This is why it makes sense,to mandate that local authorities contract ICE whenever a non-citizen has been convicted of a felony.

    1. Well said, Greg, and I think the two of us are essentially in agreement. The problem is, it’s not just illegal felons that the government wants to be contacted on — it’s any illegal that is arrested, for any violation, even before there is any kind of conviction on their record. When we start enforcing that, we will begin having the kind of terrible relationships within our community that you’re talking about as mistrust grows.

      1. I think there is more smoke than fire to contacting ICE upon arrest. There are simply too many arrests for ICE to do anything about it.

        Now if ICE were asking for a hold, that would be a different matter. A hold cost the local authorities money and there is a natural antagonism between the locals and any mandate that cuts into their budget.

        But the same could be said for the state law too. Local agencies would prefer to deal with things in their own way. Sure, there is always the risk that discretion can become discrimination – but it is the local cops who will know when someone is active in a gang and be glad to be rid of them.

        1. All true, Greg. In regard to ICE asking for a hold, currently the request is for a 48-hour hold on illegals that are arrested. And as you said, many cities are against it because of the money involved, as well as the potential Constitutional ramifications. I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but ICE makes available a weekly report online listing cities that don’t follow through on hold requests at . I think of it as a way of targeting/shaming cities into cooperating.

          1. Then again you will have to watch for people like me. I see it as they have broken into my house and now want to stay and live with me without even considering my opinion. Well my opinion is NO. I know there are ramifications considering that the gutless politicians have let it go on for so long. There is also the fact that a majority of them have NO want to melt into our pot. That being said I would like to see them all deported in an orderly way so as to not upset things anymore than necessary.

            1. I understand your analogy, David, and see where you’re coming from. My concern is more for those who have been here contributing to the economy and starting a life, only to have it taken away simply because they are undocumented. If they commit a felony, absolutely deport them. But the truth is, the real criminal element already knows how to avoid ICE and will be the ones who don’t get booted out.

    2. Let’s remember the ones who didn’t break any laws, as well. Blanket deportation leaves vulnerable the children of immigrants (who, by any definition, weren’t responsible for the choice to be here), victims of human trafficking, and many other groups that don’t immediately spring to mind when you say “illegal immigrant”. That’s why we use the term “undocumented,” because it clears away the assumption that this person is inherently a criminal.

      Yes, sure, criminals flee here. Some of them even stay here. They, generally, aren’t the ones getting picked up by ICE. They’re under the radar, they have false documentation to protect them – they have criminal connections to protect them – and they’re not putting down roots or paying taxes (which, statistically, most undocumented persons do). Criminals, out of necessity, are much better adapted to avoiding capture than the rest of us.

      1. We use the term “illegal immigrant” to describe those who are here illegally versus those who are here legally. Although it is a crime to enter the country without permission, we do not use the term “criminal immigrant” which leaves open the possibility that the person in question was not responsible for the criminal act….as in the case of children or victims of human trafficking.

        The question regarding sanctuary cities is to what extent local agencies should enforce federal law? The debate centers on several events in the criminal justice system.

        When police become aware a person is in country illegally.
        When an illegal immigrant is arrested.
        When an illegal immigrant is convicted.
        When an illegal immigrant is released from custody.

        Most agencies are reluctant to notify ICE after a casual contact because it undermines their relationship with the community.

        Many agencies will not act if the arrest is for a non-violent infraction.

        Some agencies will never notify ICE nor honor a hold request.

        As for criminal immigrants – that is the primary issue here. This administration has made it clear that criminals are its primary focus and that it intends to reduce the illegal immigrant problem by reducing the flow into the country rather than engaging in mass deportations.

        Yet the law remains…and ICE will continue to enforce it in cases where a subject is brought to their attention.

        1. When I wrote my column, I had no idea that, Sunday here in my small town of 8,000, ICE agents showed up and took seven Latino residents who’ve been working here for several years. They arrived in two vans, with weapons, and whisked these folks away. ICE notified the police upon their arrival and departure. Nothing more. We have no idea what they were picked up for, other than being illegal immigrants, and we still don’t know where they were taken. As a newspaper, we are digging into it but getting real info is extremely difficult. Illegal or not, taking people like that without a conviction and without information is just wrong.

  3. Oh Hey Ned! THERE you are! I wuz wonderin…
    Immigration is such a volatile subject and I find that most people who make statements or assumptions don’t know what the hell they are talking about. They start spouting off crap they “heard someone say” or that they read on Facebook?? Geez..
    It hits kind of close to home for us because we live in the great state of Texas where the population of immigrants is high. But I have people who work for me that are from Mexico and I pay them more than I did the guy who had the job before them! (who was a young white kid) I believe in the spirit of “sanctuary” and I don’t believe we should just start rounding people up who are here illegally and ship them back to wherever they come from. But just like ANY criminal, they should be punished if they are breaking our laws (being here illegally not withstanding). If they happen to be from another country, then send them back there. There has to be some kind of compromise and I feel the immigration policy Pres Obama had proposed made more sense. Building a stupid wall ain’t gonna help.. no matter who pays for it! :-/

    1. I agree 100 percent. If an illegal immigrant commits a felony, they have waved their right to stay here and should be deported. That in itself also serves as a deterrent to committing crime once they are here. Over the weekend, in our sleepy little town of 8,000, ICE came and took seven residents, only informing the local police of their arrival and departure. No information as to why they were taken or even where they were taken to. It’s just not right. Oddly, I wrote this editorial before I knew about this incident, which makes this piece — sadly — more timely than I had intended.

      1. Wow… we hear about ICE here A LOT! There was a huge incident down in Austin just a few weeks ago and people got hurt. It is sad. I wish there was a better way, but just like Obama and Bush said.. “the system is broken” 😦
        I know it sounds like I am an Obama advocate. I’m really not. But not everything he tried to do was wrong or bad. I just don’t agree with most of his politics. However, he was our President for 8 years and I respect the office and treat whoever is in that position with respect. Because praying the President will fail while serving as our Commander and Chief is kind of like shooting the pilot flying the plane at 35,000 feet. (I didn’t vote for Trump either) just sayin……

  4. I don’t envy you this debate … but controversy about the number of illegal immigrants (claiming refugee status) crossing our border – many in need of immediate medical attention because of frostbite or hypothermia – is escalating. Are we a sanctuary “country”? The vast majority of these people just want to have a decent life and I want my country to be generous to them, but we really don’t know who else is a part of the crowd.

    Good to see you again. 🙂

    1. Without question, there is a need to control access into the country. And I have no problem with deporting illegals who have been convicted of a felony. My concern is for those who have been here for years as contributing members and suddenly find themselves rounded up and sent to deportation camps. It is happening as we speak. It even happened in my small town of 8,000 here in Oregon over the weekend. No one knows where they went, and our local police were only notified when ICE arrived and when they departed. Period. There’s something wrong with that.

  5. I would beg those of you who are committed to social justice to reconsider the notion of sanctuary. If you don’t like a law, work to change it. That is how democracy works. If you feel that you only have to follow the laws that you believe are just – what do you do when people who disagree with you feel that they only need to follow the laws that they believe are just?

    Is it that hard to envision a city offering sanctuary to those who discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation?

    1. I get what you’re saying, Greg, and agree that ultimately the law is what need to be better defined and/or changed. But sometimes it takes action to get the dialogue going. I’m not sure the civil rights movement would’ve been as effective if it had been limited to writing our Congressmen and women.

      1. Action is good and so is civil disobedience but if one reads Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi and King, one gains an appreciation for the respect for even an unjust law.

        Each one of those writers stressed the point that it is mandatory to suffer the consequences of breaking even an unjust law. They understood that this was necessary to preserve public order and the rule of law….because as thinkers who stood up for the least among us, they realized that it is the law that ultimately protects them.

        If one advocates for following only the laws that one deems just, one has to realize that they opened the door for the forces of evil to do the same.

  6. Let me see if I have this right. ICE came into Florence and picked up 7 criminals that had been in the community for some period of time without getting arrested by local law enforcement.

    The administration informs us that they are only interested in targeting “criminals”, which I take to mean something more than the lack of papers. If this is true then local law enforcement leaves something to be desired.

    Or perhaps ICE isn’t doing what we are being told it is doing and they are picking up people who only lack papers. Sorry folks I do not trust the word of ICE.

    1. We’ll have a full story in Saturday’s pepper, but until then I can tell you that at least one of the seven people ICE picked up didn’t have a criminal record. The rest we are checking on.

  7. Canada has been letting in tens of thousands of Syrians for a year now and so far we haven’t seen any blow-back.

    Personally, I know my home and native land can only support so many new residents before it implodes but with any luck our government will start practicing better fiscal policies and they’ll be more cash in the budget to do the right thing for everyone. If not, we may have to make some truly hard – but necessary – choices in the future.

    All right, that’s enough with the serious stuff!
    I’m off to harangue some guests…

    1. So true, my friend. In my experience, many times the toughest choice is the right choice. Politicians seem to have that bass awkwards.

      And yeah, stop slacking with the harassment already!

No one is watching, I swear...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s