Brad Spoerri

Sanctuary Cities: A Closer Look at Human Rights and the True Nature of “Bad Hombres”

By Brad Spoerri

Writing 111: Writing Seminar

What does it mean to be an “illegal” immigrant in the United States? The answer to this question is far more obscure than people tend to assume. This is largely because the nation still lacks a consistent and uniform approach to the issue. Thus, undocumented immigrants live at the whim of complex and ever-changing social and legal constructs far beyond their control. Moreover, undocumented immigrants live at the whim of American citizens who show signs of forgetting that they are human beings no different from themselves.

The concept of illegal immigration did not arise in the United States until the late nineteenth century. The Immigration Act of 1875 barred immigrants deemed undesirable, especially individuals convicted of “crimes involving moral turpitude” (Ngai). This act was followed by the higher-profile Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, effectively prohibiting all immigration from China. Precedents set by these policies then paved the way for the all-encompassing Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, a national quota of one hundred and fifty thousand immigrants allocated in different proportions based on national origin. Immigrants who did not abide by these policies were for the first time classified into two groups, “unauthorized border crossers and visa violators,” and punished by institutions established for enforcement—“illegal immigration” was born (Gunkel & Wahl).

Since the time of these policies, immigration has largely remained an exclusion-centered practice. Brief progressive reform, primarily consisting of President Johnson’s elimination of the quota system based on national origin in 1965 and the formal granting of amnesty to over two million undocumented migrants in 1986, occurred in response to Civil Rights era initiatives (Gunkel & Wahl). However, such reform was short lived and immigration policy soon defaulted back to exclusion and enforcement (Frederking 284). This was primarily due to increasing security concerns in the United States. In particular, September 11, 2001 defined what would become of twenty-first century immigration policy. The consequential foundation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 “fundamentally transformed and institutionalised immigration into security issues” (Frederking 286). Similarly, public opposition to immigration jumped twenty percent from 2000 to 2001 (Frederking 288). Restricting immigration emerged as the perceived means of protecting security and economic interests in the United States. Isolated groups of immigrants both documented and “illegal” became recognized as ‘dangerous classes,’ and began to be treated uniformly as such (Gunkel & Wahl).

Increased enforcement of exclusionary immigration policies has created a human rights dilemma. In trying to address perceived security and economic concerns associated with immigrants, immigration policy has undermined human rights standards. By cracking down on illegal immigration with enhanced border security measures and increased detention and deportation rates, the United States has failed to uphold important human rights milestones, most prominently the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which followed World War II. This first article of the UDHR states, “All human beings…should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article 9 also asserts, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” Furthermore, articles 13, 14, and 15 all elaborate on the rights of all people: to “freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”; the right to “seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” and the right “[not to] be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

Even a cursory examination of the various criteria for human rights identified above exposes how the United States has forgone human rights commitments, as it shapes immigration policy around the security and economic “interests” of American citizens. Militarization of the United States-Mexico border has forced migrants fleeing Latin America, often desperately seeking asylum from violence or persecution, to risk their lives taking dangerous routes. This is best captured by the fact that between 1993 and 2012, “more than 5000 migrants…lost their lives trying to cross the US–Mexico border” (Gunkel  & Wahl). Also, even for those who manage to arrive in the United States safely, their experience is marked by the constant threat of detention and deportation. President Obama carried out the greatest number of deportations of any president—two and a half million (Gunkel & Wahl). Additionally, in the first five years of his presidency “74 immigration detainees…died while incarcerated according to records provided by ICE” (Gunkel & Wahl). The election of President Donald Trump has only compounded existing sources of stress felt by immigrants, as he has already begun implementing directives to widen Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) ability to detain and deport hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants without a prior criminal offense. Likewise, Trump is in the process of bolstering funds for an expansion of the existing 287(g) program, a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, to recruit local sheriffs to help with deportation (Shear).

Although federal immigration policy post-9/11 failed to prioritize human rights considerations ahead of perceived security threats by means of exclusion and enforcement, a divergence of federal and local immigration lawmaking has inspired new hope for human rights oriented immigration opportunities in the United States. “Local citizenship” has become an increasingly viable alternative for undocumented immigrants. Responding to the growing demand for local citizenship, sanctuary cities have spread throughout the United States, especially following San Francisco’s designation as a “City of Refuge” in 1985 (Villazor 583). A sanctuary city can broadly be defined as place where “local authorities, civic groups, and activists challenge national immigration laws, policies, and practices” (Bauder). This is generally achieved by implementing “don’t ask don’t tell” policies at the city or county level. Moreover, some cities provide illegal immigrants with municipal identification cards and other additional services, prioritizing the accommodation of their basic needs before considering their status (Cameron). Accordingly, sanctuary cities grant “law abiding undocumented immigrants with at least basic facets of citizenship by granting them with the essential rights, privileges, obligations, and autonomy necessary to act as contributing members of the community” (Villazor 593). In this regard, sanctuary cities do not completely bypass the illegalization of unauthorized immigrants, but rather “enable illegalized migrants to better cope with their circumstances” (Bauder).

The growing traction of sanctuary cities is not without opposition. Anti- immigration politicians and activists frequently cite undocumented immigrants as an economic burden and the source of high crime rates. In his first State of the Union address, President Trump echoed these sentiments multiple times with statements such as: “our current immigration system costs America’s taxpayers many billions of dollars a year”; “we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens”; and “our obligation is to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States” (qtd. in Hains). His concerns are not entirely unjustified. While providing testimony during a hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security of the Committee on the Judiciary, Jessica Vaughan, the Director of Policy Studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, presented statistics about some concerning consequences of sanctuary city policies. Notably, she brought attention to poor criminal detention rates: “Over an 8-month period in 2014, more than 8,100 criminal aliens who were the subject of detainers were instead released back into the streets as a result of these non- cooperation policies. Approximately two- thirds of these individuals already had a serious criminal history….Nearly 1,900 of them subsequently reoffended just in that 8-month period” (United States Congress 50).

Statistical arguments such as this are not without supplement by high- profile cases, most infamously the death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle, who was shot and killed in 2015 by an “illegal immigrant” from Mexico while walking on a San Francisco pier with her father (United States Congress). It is, therefore, hardly surprising that people resent sanctuary cities for appearing to place the rights of “illegal” immigrants before the safety of American citizens. Assuming this perspective, sanctuary cities contradict what many people believe should be the main priority of federal policy and local enforcement officers—keeping American citizens safe.

Certainly some truth exists within statements such as Vaughan’s, which suggest that sanctuary cities have enabled negative outcomes. However, researchers have found that such security incidents or statistics are often used to promote generalizations and falsely proclaim causalities between large undocumented Latinx populations and crime (Steil & Vasi). Likewise, claims that undocumented immigrants lead to higher violent crime rates are disproven by studies such as the one conducted by Rumbaut and Ewing in 2007, which identified that “the violent crime rate and property crime rate declined significantly from 1994 to 2004, even though the undocumented population doubled at the same time” (Gunkel & Wahl). The findings of these studies are often attributed to the value of community trust in immigrant communities. Fear of detention and deportation acts as a disincentive for undocumented immigrants who are the victims or witnesses of violent crimes to make reports to police, resulting in less safe communities within cities with “strong arm policies” (United States Congress 33).

Yet, addressing misconceptions about physical security only accounts for half the problem. Americans have also falsely been led to believe that undocumented immigrants jeopardize their communities’ economic security. That belief fails to recognize how the sanctuary city movement has evolved over the past decade, shifting its focus towards providing security to illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for a long period of time (Bauder). Recognizing this shift challenges anti-immigration supporters who have suggested that “sanctuary policies and practices normalizing the vulnerability of migrants and refugees [have created] an exploitable urban underclass that remains politically excluded” (Bauder). In reality, sanctuary cities allow unauthorized immigrants to pursue opportunities for advancement whereas without sanctuary policies they would be forced into repressive illicit economies. Moreover, without sanctuary policies, illegal immigrants are restricted from higher earnings and contributing to their communities, exacerbating the costs incurred by United States taxpayers. Finally, the cost of deporting more than eleven million immigrants would be an enormous and unjustifiable economic burden in light of the fact that by the second and third generations, immigrants are creating net positive value far exceeding any first-generation costs (Edsall).

As clearly made visible, arguments against sanctuary policies consistently break down when exposed to scrutiny. Yet, the question remains as to whether or not sanctuary cities will be capable of overcoming the historic trends of exclusionary immigration policy in the United States. President Trump has stated his intention to implement policies defunding cities and states with sanctuary policies, and he may eventually resort to an injunction in federal court blocking such local immigration policies (Cameron). Also, it is unlikely that Trump will soften his stance given his outspoken criticism of unauthorized immigration and firm belief in the practice of national sovereignty,  both of which are directly challenged by sanctuary policies. However, it remains in question whether or not Trump will be able to impose federal immigration policy at the local level without local cooperation.

Resisting federal immigration policy in favor of local sanctuary policies is our moral responsibility. We, as a nation, have to evaluate whether or not we are living up to our commitment to human rights dating back to World War II and beyond or prior. Fears and frustrations, exacerbated from the events of 9/11, have led us towards cowardly, self-interested obligations ignorant of the human rights of others. This does not imply that it is moral to jeopardize the safety of American citizens by turning a blind eye to undocumented immigrants who have prior convictions, gang affiliations, or other overtly threatening intentions. Rather, it means that we should seek, wherever possible, to aid in the immigration efforts of those who have or are trying to come to America with the intention of leading a responsible life and contributing back to the prosperity of the nation. Will attempting this through local sanctuary policies result in occasional tragedies, setbacks, or expenses? Of course, but not remotely on the scale that has been proclaimed by anti-immigration advocates. Still, it would be naive to assume that resolving this longtime neglect for human rights will be entirely cost-free. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves if those proportionally small costs are reason enough to justify shattering pillars of human rights which we have sworn to defend.

Works Cited

Bauder, H. “Sanctuary Cities: Policies and Practices in International Perspective.” International Migration 55.2 (2017): 174–187. Wiley Online Library. 10 Apr. 2017.

Cameron, Darla. “How Sanctuary Cities Work, and How Trump’s Executive Order Might Affect Them.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 25 Jan. 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

Edsall, Thomas B. “What Does Immigration Actually Cost Us?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Sept. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

Frederking, Lauretta Conklin. “A Comparative Study of Framing Immigration Policy After 11 September 2001.” Policy Studies 33.4 (2012): 283-296. EBSCOhost. 10 Apr. 2017.

Gunkel, S. E. and González Wahl, A.M. Unauthorized Migrants and the (Il)Logic of “Crime Control”: A Human Rights Perspective on US Federal and Local State Immigration Policies. Sociology Compass 6.1 (2012): 26–45. Wiley Online Library. 16 Apr. 2017.

Hains, Tim. “Full Replay: President Trump Addresses Joint Session of Congress.” RealClearPolitics, 28 Feb. 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

Ngai, Mae M. “The Strange Career of the Illegal Alien: Immigration Restriction and Deportation Policy in the United States, 1921-1965.” Law and History Review 21.1 (2003): 69–107. Jstor. 10 Apr. 2017.

Shear, Michael, and Ron Nixon. “New Trump Deportation Rules Allow Far More Expulsions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. 

Steil, Justin P. and Ion Bogdan Vasi, “The New Immigration Contestation: Social Movements and Local Immigration Policy Making in the United States, 2000–2011,” American Journal of Sociology 119.4 (2014): 1104-1155. PubMed. 10 Apr. 2017.

United States Congress. House Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. Sanctuary Cities: A Threat to Public Safety: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourteenth Congress, First Session, July 23, 2015. U.S. Government Publishing Office, Washington, 2015.

“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, 10 Dec. 1948. Web. 10 Apr. 2017. Villazor, Rose Cuison. “Sanctuary Cities and Local Citizenship.” Fordham Urban Law Journal 37.2 (2010): 573-598. HeinOnline. 10 Apr. 2017.

A Word from Brad

Headshot of Brad SpoerriImproving one’s writing skills is a process hinging on practice. During my first year at college, I found I was challenged to practice frequently. Inevitably, between learning new strategies, techniques, and having a number of assignments to practice deploying them, I found my writing process was transformed for the better. Most noticeably, my approach to pre-writing evolved from merely collecting a pool of evidence to strategically organizing evidence and claims in a sequence in order to maximize my rhetorical appeal. This has not only allowed me to produce more compelling writing, but also to do so more concisely and pointedly. In this essay, my enhanced pre-writing skills were especially helpful in enabling me to form my thesis around a deductive dialogue between arguments for and against sanctuary cities as opposed to writing a “cookie-cutter” essay.
I am particularly proud of how I was able to pragmatically present an argument concerned with ethics, a matter which has the potential to be very abstract. This initially posed a challenge as I was overwhelmed by the task of trying to argue a position on morality especially in regard to an issue on which there are such charged and conflicting opinions. However, I was able to work through this by anchoring morality to something tangible—the Universal Declaration of Human Right —and using logical means, primarily statistics and research, to validate each side’s argument.
Writing this paper began as a slow process. I tend to get very attached to what I write which in the past made me reluctant to attempt rewriting large portions of papers. However, new experiences in Writing 111 and other classes taught me that my writing is many times better when I commit to re-writing instead of showing reluctance for it. It enables me to convey my argument more efficiently and persuasively. This essay is a final product which embodies that lesson. 

From Professor Erin Branch


Persuasive Essay

Your final writing project for this class is a 1800-2000 word (~7-8 pages) researched persuasive essay that responds to one of the following topics. Your essay should refer to at least 6 sources; you are welcome to use texts from the course reading list. Only three of your sources need be scholarly, but all must be reliable.

In order to do well on this assignment, you must research and learn about the topic you choose so that you can analyze it critically and build an evidence-based argument. The purpose of this essay will be to offer a logical and reasoned solution to a specific problem in the public sphere*.


1.) Topics Related to Higher Education

  1. How can we better prepare students for college?
  2. How can we make college more affordable?
  3. Is it beneficial for our country for more students to attend college?
  4. How can we ensure that students are learning what they need to know in college?

2.) Topics Related to Technology and Media

  1. Is it effective or just to censor parts of the media?
  2. What should be the roles of mobile devices in schools?
  3. Is it ethical for companies to market products to children?
  4. What responsibilities do social media companies have in the public sphere?

3.) Topics Related to Current Events/Politics

  1. Who should draw Congressional district maps?
  2. Should the government require everyone to purchase health insurance?
  3. Should we demand proof of citizenship before providing social or public services (like public schools, access to public assistance, police protection, etc.)?
  4. Is the Electoral College still necessary?

4.) Topics Related to Health/Medicine

  1. Should pharmaceutical companies advertise prescription drugs?
  2. Is the fast food industry legally accountable for obesity or other diet-related illness?
  3. Who is responsible for health problems caused by industrial pollution?
  4. To what extent are racial and socioeconomic factors determinants of health and/or access to healthcare?

5.) Another timely topic of your choosing. You might focus on an issue we examined in class (like immigration, globalization, capital punishment) or you could take up another issue that interests you. The website is a great resource for timely topics. Please talk with me (email is fine) if you want to devise your own topic.

A librarian will visit our class to help you use the library’s resources to complete your research. We will do some pre-writing and planning, and we will hold two preliminary workshops/discussions. We will devote April 13 to a workshop; he final draft of the essay is due on April 18.

As usual, your essay should be typed and double-spaced in a standard font. Sources should be cited according to MLA guidelines.

*I realize these topics are almost entirely focused on the U.S. context. If you would prefer to write about an international issue or about your home country (if it is not the United States), please talk with me.

Professor Commentary

Brad’s essay on sanctuary cities is sincere, well-organized, and persuasive; his prose is characterized by elegant phrasing, fresh diction, and graceful integration of sources. While his topic remains a controversial one, he deploys sound, well-supported reasoning, and his insistence on the issue’s urgency helps the essay gather considerable momentum and force.

Brad wrote his essay for a writing class devoted to exploring the nuances of controversial issues that are often cast, in the media and elsewhere, as simple binaries. Our contemporary culture often demands that we be “for” or “against” something—a stance which necessarily requires us to elide complexity and ambivalence. What I admire most about Brad’s essay is the way he resists  this imperative: he balances making a strong claim in support of sanctuary cities while consistently acknowledging the complexity of the issue, from a social, political, and moral perspective. While his own position is never in doubt, Brad never makes a bombastic or unqualified claim, nor does he omit information or perspectives that might make a reader question his claims. His conclusion in favor of sanctuary cities is passionate and unambiguous, even as he acknowledges the inevitability of occasional negative outcomes. To me, this is the mark of a sophisticated intellect and a careful writer who is mindful of many potential audiences.





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