Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Rochester, Minnesota: Sanctuary City

Rochester, Minnesota: Sanctuary City

In a political climate that engenders anxiety, exhaustion and outrage, Rochester residents have mobilized in solidarity and protest, demanding compassion for our loved ones, our neighbors and for strangers we will never meet. A women’s march along Silver Lake coincided with the presidential inauguration, and last week more than a thousand people assembled at Peace Plaza to protest President Trump’s travel ban, which prompted another protest at the Rochester International Airport. As the participants of these events dispersed, many of the conversations shifted to, What’s next? How can calls for inclusion and solidarity translate into sustainable governance?

Sanctuary Cities offer a model to consider, one predicated on the same sentiments that adorned hundreds of signs at our recent Peace Plaza gathering. Although it may not be common knowledge, if we measure national dialogues about Sanctuary Cities against Rochester’s current law enforcement policies, this is a Sanctuary City.

Defining the Sanctuary City

A number of online resources explore the evolving definition of Sanctuary City but, in short, they are a city or county that enacts provisions to ensure that law enforcement departments do not carry out the federal government’s immigration enforcement work.

Self-defined Sanctuary Cities typically share one trait: noncompliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests. These requests ask that a local law enforcement agency detain an individual for an additional 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays) after his or her release date in order to provide ICE agents extra time to decide whether to take the individual into federal custody for removal purposes. To honor an ICE detainer request, thereby prolonging detention based on a possible civil violation without a warrant, violates the 4th Amendment. 

Where are we on the map?

On the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC)’s interactive national map, many of the counties surrounding Olmsted County including Mower, Fillmore, Winona and Goodhue County are all classified as jurisdictions no longer accepting detainer requests. Olmsted County’s status is unmarked. Other maps list Minneapolis and St. Paul as Minnesota’s only Sanctuary Cities.

In 2014 Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson, then a candidate for the sheriff position, promised, “As Olmsted County Sheriff, I will not continue the practice of honoring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers without an official court order."

Last week, in conversation with Sean Baker of Med City Beat, Rochester’s City Administrator Stevan Kvenvold noted, “We’re probably viewed as a Sanctuary City in that our police chief has indicated for a long time that if an officer stops somebody, he or she doesn’t check their immigration status.”

This week, via email exchange, Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson confirmed Kvenvold's statement, clarifying, “By policy, officers of the Rochester Police Department do not ask about immigration status, ask for any documentation relating to immigration status, or predicate any enforcement action on immigration status as we have no jurisdiction or authority to enforce immigration laws. (There is no enabling legislation in Minnesota allowing "cooperative agreements" with Immigration and Customs pursuant to section 8 of the US Code, nor have we ever sought such an agreement.)” 

If our community’s law enforcement policies mirror those of Sanctuary Cities, why aren’t we included in the network of cities along with New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Columbus and many others exchanging information and leveraging collective impact?

Political commitments and practical implications

In a 2015 Post-Bulletin article, Sheriff Torgerson stated that “jail authorities will contact ICE to let them know if they have an inmate they suspect is undocumented and will give the federal agency a heads up when they expect the individual to be released.” The article then clarifies, “But ICE officials are not allowed into the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center. Instead, they must wait in the lobby of the Olmsted County Government Center to take someone into custody who is walking out of the jail.” 

The result of this is a direct transference from local law enforcement to ICE. Transferring immigrants directly to ICE makes Olmsted County an active accomplice to deportations. 

Sheriff Torgerson confirmed this week that his office has not veered from this process: “If the person is determined to have 'wanted' information from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office they will contact the Minneapolis office that the individual is in custody on charges in the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center (ADC).” Detention Center staff will then inform ICE of the individual’s “Local or State charged status and approximate release from custody.”   

U.S. law requires that the fingerprints of anyone taken into custody be sent to the F.B.I., who will then share this information with ICE or Homeland Security. Apart from that, the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office is under no legal obligation to participate in federal immigration enforcement without a warrant. 

The Rochester Police Department works to minimize profiling and discrimination based on immigration status. But these efforts to establish trust between the community and its social services are undermined, if not nullified, when the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office voluntarily aids ICE's deportation efforts.
If we are going to be touted as “America's City for Health” or even an “Inclusive City,” then our entire community must feel safe asking for help. A victim of domestic abuse should not be forced to weigh the fear of deportation against the trauma of violence. The Emergency Room should not be avoided after an automobile accident due to the immigration status of an injured passenger.

What’s next?

As I researched Rochester’s current policies, learning what was in place and what was at stake, I wanted to challenge our City Council to draft a separation, or "sanctuary," ordinance. I wanted Mayor Brede to declare Rochester a Sanctuary City. I wanted the leaders of Olmsted County to reaffirm their commitment to their residents’ well-being by prohibiting employees from using local resources to assist in executing federal duties. But after reflecting on Rochester’s recent public gatherings, seeing unflinching compassion offered to both neighbor and stranger, I realized it is the community as a whole that needs to hold our leaders accountable and define our sanctuary status. 

It is concerning that these issues have yet to enter into accessible, accountable and archived public dialogue. Whether this is because of unsubstantiated fears for public safety, concerns over recent Executive Orders promising to cut federal funding for Sanctuary Cities, or simply naïve complacency, it is time to discuss how our city will remain inclusive.

There will obviously be those who oppose a sanctuary status. They should not only feel welcome to participate in this dialogue, they should feel absolutely necessary. The varying perspectives of our community will strengthen the democratic process as we move forward to codify our identity. 

These are complicated, difficult issues, as they should be. Challenges that affect our diverse community in such disparate and sometimes unquantifiable ways should not be reduced to policies determined by the limited perspectives of a few. That is precisely why there is a division between State and Federal jurisdiction. The more difficult we make it to govern, the more we increase the individual liberties for everyone in our community. 

This is by no means an exhaustive account of the issue. To continue and add to this discussion, please join us this Wednesday at Forager for What’s on Tap, a monthly informal conversation on local issues.

Eric Anderson is a writer and artist living in Rochester.

Cover photo: Licensed / Canva

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