EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated on Sept. 28, to clarify the sanctuary designation of the First Congregational Church of Amherst. It is within a “secular sanctuary jurisdiction.”
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit for flying 50 migrants, mostly Venezuelan, from Texas to Martha's Vineyard on Sept. 14, the Republican presidential hopeful suggested it would be better for individuals to find a home in a liberal state.
“It’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction, and yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you, to be able to go to greener pastures,” DeSantis told reporters.
DeSantis' claim is wrong.
While the Bay State has several policies that protect migrants, the state has not adopted a sanctuary resolution or ordinance.
"(DeSantis) is leveraging disinformation to create widespread fear," said Lloyd Barba, assistant professor of Latin American studies at Amherst College. "He is tapping at the culture wars, and ready made one-liners, which he preferred over accurate and truthful information."
Six Cape Cod towns designated "safe communities" by town meeting votes
Since 2017, six out of 15 Cape Cod towns have become designated "safe communities," offering some protection to undocumented migrants, said activist Mark Gabriele.
But the word sanctuary, he said, can often be misunderstood.
"There is no protection for any criminal prosecution, or protection from ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) performing its functions," said Gabriele, of the Cape Cod Coalition for Safe Communities. "It’s a matter of the local police participating or not participating in ICE initiatives. That's the heart of it."
Towns with safe community designations on the Cape include Provincetown, Truro, Eastham, Wellfleet, Brewster, and Dennis. Designations were largely established in 2017, as the result of coordinated citizen petitions sponsored during May and April town meetings.
A petition was also submitted to the Orleans Board of Selectman, and was introduced during May 2017 town meeting as Article 46. But the matter was indefinitely postponed and did not pass.
Michael Hager, a member of the coalition, led Eastham's efforts for safe community designation.
Town meetings approve disconnecting federal immigration authorities from local law enforcement
Each town's petition contained similar language, and asked the town Select Board to tell town officials to refrain from using town money and other resources to enforce federal immigration law, unless presented with a criminal warrant or other evidence of probable cause.
The petitions also asked Select Boards to protect the civil liberties and human rights of all town residents regardless of age, race, ethnicity, ability, sexual and gender identity, marital or economic status, national origin, or citizenship and immigrant status.
"What it meant was that there would be a disconnect between federal authorities and local law enforcement," Hager said.
With safe communities, local officials agree to refrain from going after people based on immigration status
To Gabriele's point, Hager said, the designation only works if local law enforcement embrace protection measures. Federal immigration authorities can still enter a sanctuary town. It's the local officials who agreed to refrain from going after people based on their immigration status.
In Eastham, Edward Kulhawik was police chief at the time, and spoke in favor of the designation during May 2017 town meeting. Kulhawik was hopeful it could help promote public safety throughout the community, said Hager.
"He understood that having a safe community was consistent with community policing values. He respected all people — he didn't want to scare people," he said. "He wanted everyone — whether they were documented or not — to come to the police when they needed them."
In February 2020, Adam Bohannon became the Eastham chief of police. Bohannon did not immediately return emailed questions from the Times regarding his outlook on the town's safe community designation.
Designations stem from Trump 2017 executive orders
Coordinated efforts to bring safe community designations to the Cape, said Hager, were in response to President Donald Trump's January 2017 executive order, banning foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries — an act that became known to many as the "Muslim ban."
Coalition members, said Hager, were fearful that undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and other minority groups would be harassed, or deported because of those measures.
In that same year, the Trump administration also intensified immigration enforcement surrounding Central and South American migrants at the southern border, and others living within the United States, said Hager.
The Trump administration also made a real effort to motivate local authorities, particularly sheriffs, to be helpful to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"They wanted local law enforcement to allow ICE to interview people and hold them beyond their release date, which the Massachusetts Supreme Court said was illegal," Hager said.
In December 2017, Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings entered into a 287(g) agreement with ICE, which allows local deputies to serve as federal immigration agents and enforce federal civil immigration law. In its first year, the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Office referred 79 inmates to ICE. Barnstable County is the last remaining sheriff’s office in the state to have an active 287(g) agreement.
There are eight Sanctuary City designations within the Commonwealth
As Cape towns were voting on safe community designations, sanctuary city and sanctuary state designations were popping up across the United States, said Hager.
In Massachusetts, Amherst, Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Concord, Newton, Northampton and Somerville were established as sanctuary cities shortly after Trump was elected into office.
The term "sanctuary" quickly became an explosive term, said Hager, with Trump threatening to withhold federal funding from cities established as sanctuary cities. That's why the Cape coalition opted for the term "safe communities" instead.
Amherst College's Barba said some towns and states refused to enact sanctuary designations, for fear of losing financial aid.
"A little town in California called Arvin is about 95% Hispanic," he said. "The city council is Hispanic and they still chose not to become a sanctuary city because they were afraid Trump would withhold federal funding."
Barba went on to say there's no one definition of a sanctuary city. But, according to each city's public record and ordinance, local law enforcement should be limiting information they share with federal immigration officers.
"Local police officers are not supposed to allow immigration officers to come into local jails, interrogate immigrants on their immigration status," he said.
While the ordinances are important, Barba said sanctuary designations don't guarantee that police won't cooperate with ICE officials.
"It’s kind of their (local police) call," he said. "If they are investigating a violent crime, in that case they could. It doesn’t work how one would assume."
Migrants are not safe from deportation in areas designated as sanctuaries, according to one scholar
The misconception, Barba said, is that people think migrants are safe from deportation in areas designated as sanctuaries.
"That's a classic piece of misinformation," he said.
Los Angeles, Barba said, is a sanctuary city, within a sanctuary county, within a sanctuary state. But during Trump's time in office, large numbers of immigrants were deported.
"Los Angeles had three layers of a sanctuary protection, but again, huge (deportation) rates still happened," he said. "People were being rounded up at factories, parking lots, and their day jobs."
In New York City, which has a sanctuary designation, ICE worked harder for deportations because local law enforcement wouldn’t cooperate.
"It's fair to say that sanctuary cities make ICE's job harder — because of the commitment to be more fair to immigrants," Barba said. "But there are unintended consequences of becoming a sanctuary city also."
Sanctuary-designated churches, hospitals and schools provide true protection, according to Amherst pastor
Ironclad protections for migrants come into play only in sanctuary-designated houses of worship, hospitals, and schools, said Vicki Kemper, pastor at First Congregational Church of Amherst.
The concept surrounding sanctuary city and safe community designations comes from the Old Testament, said Kemper. Hebrew scriptures under Moses describe a system of sanctuary towns and villages set up for people who accidentally killed someone, so they wouldn't be subject to vigilante justice.
"They could go to these designated places and be safe there. A sanctuary town is the same kind of idea," she said.
In 2017, First Church's congregation considered becoming a sanctuary church and also advocated for the town of Amherst to become a sanctuary town.
"If somebody is looking for a safe place because of their immigration status, a house of worship is one of their best options," Kemper said.
As deportations revved up in 2017, First Church congregation members voted to become an immigrant welcoming congregation.
"Meaning that we would welcome immigrants to our community, our town, and we would support immigration justice," she said.
Offering safe haven from October 2017 to March 2021
In September, Kemper and the church congregation learned that Lucio Perez of Springfield was facing deportation.
For years, Perez reported to regular check-ins at the Hartford ICE office, said Kemper. But in the late summer of 2017, he went for his regular appointment and was told to purchase a one-way plane ticket back to his home country of Guatemala. Perez complied with ICE orders, and at his next appointment was fitted with an ankle monitor. If Perez was ultimately deported, he would have been separated from his wife and children, who would remain in Springfield.
In response, the church gave Perez safe haven from October 2017 to March 2021.
"It was the night before he got on the plane that he took sanctuary with us. As a result, he was eventually able to remain in the United States," Kemper said. "But it was years of complicated and unreasonable immigration law that he has had to deal with."
Throughout Perez' ordeal, Kemper said the whole Amherst community stepped up and local organizations, as well as members of Congress helped Perez obtain a year-long stay of deportation, which was renewed in March 2022, and eventually resolved in June.
"Houses of worship are really the only places that can offer somebody that kind of refuge," Kemper said. "Our faith in our community made sanctuary work for as long as it did."
The church as 'secular sanctuary jurisdiction'
Barba, the professor, was at the celebration party when Perez was finally able to leave the church grounds, and move back to Springfield with his family. The church was within a "secular sanctuary jurisdiction," he said.
"He was there so long that the battery in his ankle monitor expired," said Barba. "He was safe because he was in a proper sanctuary — a house of worship."
Ironically, Barba said, the police station is next door to the church. Amherst police, he said, also cooperated with Amherst's sanctuary city policies.
"There is an inviolable quality in churches," he said. "While cities and towns don't have that same sort of cultural layer of protection, in this case, it worked out for Lucio. Folks were so happy to see him regain his freedoms."
Contact Rachael Devaney at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @RachaelDevaney.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: What does being a sanctuary mean? Here's how it works in Massachusetts