Martha Davis on Sanctuary City Protections


In her recent paper on sanctuary cities in the US, RWI affiliated professor Martha Davis, with her colleague at Northeastern University, Serena Parekh, provides a philosophical perspective on the relationship between sanctuary city protections and the promotion of human rights in the US.

She sat down with RWI to dig deeper into some of the paper’s principle arguments.

Davis says the US government, like all governments, is obligated to provide resources and services for residents without citizenship as part of its responsibility as a legitimate state.

The difference between a resident and a citizen is really just a legal status, she says. The formation of the state included the obligation of the state to provide things for residents as well as citizens. If they’re in your country, you have some basic responsibility for them.

A critical element of the debate over sanctuary cites lies in the relationship between US federal law enforcement and the policies of individual cities throughout the country. Sanctuary cities, also called safe cities, are ones that do not cooperate with federal immigration restrictions such as handing over immigrants who have committed a felony to the federal government.

“The way federal policy is set up now, states and cities are not obliged to turn over undocumented immigrants – it’s just that the federal government would like them to,” says Davis. “The federal government has turned to targeted raids on private employers and surveillance of public places like courts because it can’t require cities to hand over undocumented immigrants.”

People argue against sanctuary cities based on two arguments without much merit, says Davis. The first is that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes. The second argument is that undocumented immigrants receive government services that are paid for by tax-paying citizens.

Davis argues that both arguments are baseless – research shows that immigrants in the US are less likely to commit crime and that they actually do pay taxes from sales tax and from taxes extracted by their employer.

The paper makes the moral argument that the threat of deportation prevents undocumented residents in cities from receiving basic human rights.

People can’t access the rights that a legitimate state has to provide to them,” Davis explains. If you have a threat of deportation over you, then you are not going to do things like send your kids to school, access services, or call the police if you’re in a domestic violence situation.

Davis co-wrote the report in cooperation with an inter-disciplinary group at Northeastern University that is examining whether sanctuary city status actually makes immigrant communities feel safe.

Unfortunately, these raids send the message that people are not really safe because the city cannot stop the federal government from conducting raids, she says.

The work relates to a report Davis authored at RWI a few years ago on Romani immigrants’ access to water and sanitation in Sweden. That report also made the point that noncitizen residents are entitled to basic human rights.