In the ever-divisive debate over the proper role of local police in enforcing federal immigration law, there is a recurrent theme, especially as it involves Los Angeles: Critics complain that this and other municipalities have become "sanctuary cities," in which those in the country illegally are shielded from immigration authorities. That complaint is widespread — it's a regular feature of letters to the editor of this newspaper, and it crops up in politics at all levels. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman argued it during her failed effort against Jerry Brown. Even Wikipedia lists Los Angeles as a sanctuary city.
That's widely believed. It's also utterly false. In a sanctuary city, the city government either actively protects undocumented immigrants from arrest or declines to cooperate with those who oversee deportations, sometimes by limiting the use of city funds. Los Angeles does none of that. The police regularly cooperate with immigration officials; recent joint efforts include gang and drug cases and investigations of organized crime. Every suspect booked by the LAPD or Sheriff's Department is fingerprinted, and those prints are shared with immigration authorities. Every day, men and women who are here illegally — either because they sneaked across the border or overstayed their visas — are removed from Los Angeles and sent home.
The idea of sanctuary cities dates to the 1980s, when thousands of people fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala sought refuge in the United States. American involvement in those wars made the federal government reluctant to acknowledge the danger the refugees faced in their home countries, so churches and synagogues rallied to take them in and shield them from deportation. Some cities, including Los Angeles, joined that movement. In 1985, the City Council formally expressed its "opposition to the deportation of known law-abiding Central American refugees who have fled their homelands for the fear of losing their lives." Even then, however, the council insisted that its support for those refugees should not be construed as "sanctioning the violation of any law or encouraging interference in law enforcement efforts." At no point did the city government protect immigrants from federal authorities.
A few years later, the council considered going further, adopting a motion that would have prevented the Police Department from assisting or cooperating with immigration authorities. That resolution, however, was never adopted by the Police Commission and has never guided LAPD policy.
Instead, LAPD officers operate under another regulation that also is widely — sometimes deliberately — misunderstood. Known as Special Order 40, it is often said to provide blanket protection for illegal immigrants. In fact, it provides no sanctuary to anyone.
Special Order 40, approved by then-Chief Daryl F. Gates in 1979, recognizes some essential public safety facts as they relate to immigration. Those who are in the country illegally may be reluctant to call for help or to act as witnesses if they believe that contacting law enforcement will result in their deportation. That makes them especially susceptible to victimization and creates risks for others too, in that crimes may go unreported or unsolved if illegal immigrants refuse to cooperate. Acknowledging those realities, Special Order 40 concludes that "officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person." It does not, however, prevent officers from turning over those arrested for other offenses to immigration authorities; in fact, it specifically directs officers to contact federal authorities if an arrestee turns out to be in the country illegally. It even orders officers to compile a daily list of arrest reports of "undocumented aliens" and forward that list to federal immigration officers.
That is not sanctuary. It is sound public policy that protects not just vulnerable immigrants but society at large.
Some cities are more protective of illegal immigrants. San Francisco, for instance, bars police from inquiring about the immigration status of those with whom officers come in contact, and it declines to use city money to assist immigration enforcement. That does not provide illegal immigrants complete protection, of course, as federal agents still work in the city, and the city's police cooperate with federal officials in gang and drug cases.
The immigration system's failings are many. The borders are porous; immigration authorities are overburdened, as are the courts. States have taken matters into their own hands, creating a patchwork of ill-advised local laws that are no substitute for thoughtful federal policy. With such vital issues to debate, it is all the more important to rely on facts rather than fantasies or conspiracies. To be clear: Los Angeles is not, and never has been, a sanctuary city.