Rural America’s ‘Sanctuary’ Cities
Jackson, Wyoming, and Worthington, Minnesota, are two rural "sanctuary cities." Both depend on immigrant workers to make their economies go.
Federal immigration officials raided the Swift & Co. pork processing plant in Worthington, Minnesota, last December, arresting or detaining 230 workers. In January, children of immigrant workers shared toys collected for the families. The raids took place in six states and were the largest such enforcement action ever undertaken.
Photo: Quito Ziegler/Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network
At the Democratic presidential debate at Dartmouth College in late September, the candidates were asked one of the hottest questions on the campaign trail:
"Dozens of cities around the country, including several right here in New England, have been designated as sanctuary cities,ï¿½? said Allison King of New England Cable News. “These are communities that provide a safe haven for illegal immigrants, where police are told not to involve themselves in immigration matters. Would you allow these cities to ignore the federal law regarding the reporting of illegal immigrants and, in fact, provide sanctuary to these immigrants?"
Debates over sanctuary cities have churned through the Republican campaigns for months. The issue came up because New York City followed sanctuary policies while Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani was mayor.
Questions posed to presidential candidates about sanctuary cities have generally focussed on law enforcement in major urban areas. But there are rural towns that follow the same policies as their urban counterparts do — and for the same reasons.
Buses sent by the Department of Homeland Security were used to transport workers arrested at the Swift raid.
Photo: Minnesota Public Radio
(There is no official list of “sanctuary cities,ï¿½? a term that many city council members and police officers never use. There are rosters of cities that allegedly follow sanctuary practices, such as the one here.)
Sanctuary cities exist because of incompatabilities between local and federal enforcement of immigration laws — and between local and federal outlooks on the immigration issue, as well. During the Dartmouth debate, Sen. Hillary Clinton explained that it is simply not the job of local law enforcement to round up undocumented immigrants. Besides, she added, if immigrants fear their local policemen are also enforcing federal immigration rules, officers cannot properly investigate crimes. Crimes won’t be reported and witnesses won’t talk to police.
"The problem is the federal government has totally abdicated its responsibility," Clinton said.
In the rural sanctuary city of Jackson, Wyoming, police chief Dan Vivkovitch agrees with the New York senator. "I see our function as providing safety and security to people and property," he said. "If we have people, especially victims who are afraid to call because of their immigration status, that's immoral."
Jackson (population 8,647) is by definition a sanctuary city: its police officers are not allowed to ask local residents about their immigration status unless they are arrested for some other reason.
In a rural tourist community like Jackson, immigrants are an important part of the town's economy, Vivkovitch explained. A small local population, an isolated location and a seasonal influx of tourists necessitate an outside workforce.
"L.A., Denver, San Antonio, Atlanta – they all have the infrastructure to support immigrant work forces more than Jackson, but if you combine our need for service workers with the inability to find them locally, you'll see that the fact that we're rural makes things a little harder for us," Vivkovitch said.
In Worthington, Minnesota, the Swift Meat Packing plant provides most of the jobs for the town’s large immigrant population, primarily composed of Laotian, Mexican and Somalian immigrants. Worthington, too, is a sanctuary city. Justine Wettschreck, a reporter at the local newspaper, The Daily Globe, says her town is split in two over the issue.
"At the Swift Meat Packing plant, there was a raid last year,ï¿½? she explained. “They (federal officers) ended up criminally charging 20 people, and it tore this community apart. All of the people who are working here have had to buy an identity at some point, so there is a big issue with identity theft."
The December 2006 raids took place in six plants across the Midwest, with federal agents targeting immigrants in an identity theft investigation; 1,297 people were arrested initially. As of March 1st of this year, 649 had already been deported.
In Worthington, at least, federal immigration officers weren’t looking for local assistance. "I'm not sure we received any notification until the morning of," Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening said of the raid. "That was pretty much ICE's (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) deal. Local law enforcement had, I guess, nothing to do with it at all."
Sanctuary cities continue to be part of the immigration debate in the campaign, but not much of the talking has taken place in Worthington. "Well, the candidate from the Nazi party came through," Wettschreck said, recounting the town’s visits from presidential hopefuls. "Maybe because they know no one will take them seriously in a larger place."
If a presidential candidate sought to eradicate sanctuary cities altogether, Justine Wettschreck believes Worthington's residents would be divided on the issue. "There are people in this town who are very pro-immigrant and others who are frustrated by them and basically want them to leave,ï¿½? she said. “The latest statistics count about a third of the population as immigrants and those are just the legal ones." Even with the influx of immigrants, Worthington lost population in the first six years of this century; it now has a population of just over 11,000
The folks in Jackson and Worthington didn't have a name for their local policies — Chief Vivkovitch said he’d never heard the term “sanctuary city." But the issue of how local police are to handle undocumented immigrants is becoming a concern not only of presidential politics, but state policy. Last year Colorado passed a law prohibiting sanctuary cities.
"What this bill does is allow each and every employee of local government to build their own policy based on their own beliefs,ï¿½? Mexican Consul General Juan Marcos Gutierrez told the Washington Times in 2006. "This is leaving a window open for any employee who has a personal agenda on immigration to make a decision based on racial profiling."
In Jackson, town council member Melissa Turley notes that the Wyoming highway patrol does not conform to sanctuary policies of the local police department. "I've had confirmation of a few people who have been pulled over by the highway patrol and have been arrested and deported," she said.
The politics and practice of sanctuary cities is also mixed up in the antagonisms that exist between immigrants and Anglo residents. On September 16, local law enforcement stopped a Mexican and Central American Independence Day celebration in Worthington, even though the event's organizers had a permit. After complying with an initial request from law enforcement to turn down their music, organizers were told to turn it off entirely. The next day locals participated in a march to protest the cancellation of the event. Event organizer Roberto Ramirez and the town council are reportedly working together to ensure next year's celebration goes more smoothly.