A bill that would keep agencies, cities and college campuses in Mississippi from offering sanctuary to unauthorized immigrants would not keep communities safe and goes against the Christian tenet of caring for those in need, said Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz of Jackson.
He issued a statement on Feb. 15 opposing S.B. 2710, also known as the "sanctuary cities" bill, which passed the state Senate in a 32-16 vote Feb. 9. The bill goes to the state House for consideration.
The measure would prohibit cities and institutions of higher learning from declaring themselves sanctuary cities. There are currently no sanctuary cities in the state, although the city of Jackson proposed such a declaration last year.
"As Christians we are called to welcome the stranger and care for those in need. As citizens, we are called to keep our communities strong and safe. We feel that the so-called 'sanctuary cities' bill being debated right now in the Mississippi Legislature damages both of those efforts," wrote Bishop Kopacz.
In a sanctuary city, local law enforcement would not be forced to act as federal immigration agents, like the officers of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In fact, they would be prohibited from asking a person they detained about his or her immigration status. S.B. 2710 would prohibit cities from enacting sanctuary policies.
The bill's opening statement says it would apply to entities such as "a state agency, department, political subdivision of this state, county, municipality, university, college, community college or junior college, or any agent, employee or officer thereof."
Immigrant advocates said the bill raises several concerns.
Amelia McGowan, an immigration attorney for the Catholic Charities Migrant Resource Center based in Jackson, said the vague language, especially in relation to schools, opens up a number of potential problems.
"The first provision is potentially extremely dangerous. It could allow any state official, or anyone working for the state government to report any individual to federal immigration authorities. In other words, it prevents the state and local agencies from prohibiting its employees from reporting an individual to ICE," said McGowan in an email to the Mississippi Catholic, newspaper of the Jackson Diocese.
"That means, undocumented—or suspected undocumented—individuals seeking services in any state or local agency—courts, police protection, K-12 education, higher education, state hospital, state health and mental health agencies -- could be reported to ICE by a disgruntled employee," McGowan explained.
It also means an agency "could not prohibit its employees from doing so," she continued. "Now, presumably that person may be protected in some cases by privacy laws, but I am afraid that this provision would prevent individuals from seeking state services, which include reporting violent crimes to the police."
According to Christy Williams, an attorney at the headquarters of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, known as CLINIC, in Silver Spring, Maryland, the provision also opens up municipalities to potential liability. A school employee who discloses a student's immigration information could be violating federal privacy laws and the school could be held liable.
If any officer reports a person they suspect is in the country without legal permission but that person turns out to have a valid legal status, the local agency can be sued. CLINIC highlighted one example from Allentown, Pennsylvania, when officers arrested a U.S. citizen for alleged drug crimes.
"He had both his driver's license and Social Security card with him at the time of the arrest and was eventually found innocent," according to a CLINIC document about sanctuary cities. "During his time in custody, the police called ICE based on the presumption that, because of his race, he was undocumented.
"Despite being documented, the citizen was held for three days after posting bail based on an ICE detainer. He was released only after an ICE agent interrogated him and confirmed his citizenship. The U.S. citizen sued local and county officials in 3rd District Federal Court, leading to verdicts in his favor and settlement costs totaling nearly $150,000," the document said.
When a local agency reports someone to ICE, the federal agents may ask the local agency to detain the suspect. The local agency has to absorb the cost of housing, feeding and caring for the person until ICE can process the case. That money is rarely reimbursed to state and local agencies.
Critics of the Mississippi bill say that because it is vague, it also could erode the relationship first responders have with their communities. If immigrants, even those in the country legally, believe police officers, medical personnel or firefighters are going to report them to immigration officials, they may hesitate to call for much-needed help.
McGowan said she thinks if the bill becomes law, it "would have a chilling effect on individuals seeking state services" such as medical care, mental health care and police protection," and would negatively affect immigrants' educational opportunities. She also thinks it would subject victims of violent crimes and/or abuse "to greater danger."
President Donald Trump has pledged to strip federal funds from jurisdictions that declare themselves "sanctuary cities."
"We urge lawmakers and advocates to oppose S.B. 2710," Bishop Kopacz said in his statement. "We will, as a Catholic community, continue to work with immigrants and refugees—welcoming their contributions to our community and culture— even as we pray for a just solution to the challenges of immigration and security."