News Local/State

What It Means To Be A Sanctuary City In Urbana

U of I Law Professor Francis Boyle addresses the Urbana City Council on December 19, 2016, in support of the Sanctuary City measure that leaders passed on a 5-1 vote.

U of I Law Professor Francis Boyle addresses the Urbana City Council on December 19, 2016, in support of the Sanctuary City measure that leaders passed on a 5-1 vote. Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

On Tuesday, the Trump Administration released details on new policies to ramp up federal immigration detentions and deportations. Ahead of the move, Urbana joined hundreds of other cities in declaring itself a sanctuary city – meaning they’ll offer some protections to people in the country illegally. That could cost the city roughly $1 million in federal funds, based on recent executive orders from the president.

But the measure is welcome news to residents like Francisco, who left Mexico City with his mother when he was just three years old.

For the past 16 years, they’ve lived illegally in the United States -- the only home Francisco’s ever known.

Just recently, he says a friend asked him if he even knew the Mexican National Anthem.

“I was like ‘no’,” he said.  “So you’re more Mexican on the outside, and American on the inside?” said his friend.  “I thought about it, I’m like yeah, I’m Mexican on the outside.  I’m not going to hide it, I don’t know anything about Mexico.”

At their request, we’re only using Francisco and his mother Eva’s first names to protect their identity and safety.

They both live in Urbana, where they work as cooks at a nearby restaurant.  Francisco takes computer network classes at Parkland College, and may seek out an IT job at the University of Illinois one day.

“I’ve never been a big striver, but I just want to live a mundane life, have kids, be able to support a family one day,” he said. “Being able to help (his mother) out if she ever needs anything.  I don’t have big goals, but I just want to be happy.”

Francisco and his mother are among the estimated 11,000 people living illegally in Champaign County, based on data from Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer. Francisco has some protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, created under President Obama.

But with the Trump administration ramping up deportation efforts, their future in Urbana is unclear.

Eva says these days, she feels scared just going to the store.

“Sometimes I feel afraid to speak my language in maybe Wal-Mart, because you never know who is beside you,” she said. “I feel afraid sometimes to speak Spanish, or maybe they see me, and say hey, you! Back to your country… you never know!”

Urbana hopes to calm those fears.  A month before President Trump’s inauguration, the city council re-affirmed the community as a sanctuary for those in the country illegally.

On the night of December 19, the Urbana City Council re-affirmed its sanctuary status on a 5-1 vote, with the only "no" vote coming from Alderman Mike Madigan, a Republican.  The roughly 50 members in the audience that night applauded the decision.

About 50 people filled the Urbana CIty Council chambers on December 19.

Photo Credit: Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

The sanctuary distinction in Urbana goes back to the mid-1980’s.

University of Illinois Law Professor Francis Boyle was behind the original, 1986 sanctuary resolution. That was designed to help refugees from Central America.

Boyle helped write the new measure, and says the term sanctuary is unclear under the law. That, he says, can help shield the city from legal challenge.

“What is a sanctuary – technically, is undefined as a matter of law,” he said. “So you can’t take legal action against people – unless there’s a definition you’re dealing with. And right now, there is no definition, it’s somewhat amorphous, because (with) each city – some are more liberal than others.”

At its core, a ‘sanctuary city’ seeks to offer some protection to those who live in the country illegally. 

Urbana’s revised measure doesn’t offer protection from deportation, but Boyle says it confirms police generally won’t help the federal government investigate immigration status – unless there’s a court order.

“And then second, the critical component here, is that the city of Urbana, will provide city services to all residents, irrespective of immigration status,” Boyle said.

It’s that first part – law enforcement not helping immigration authorities - that led to threats of federal repercussions.

The Trump administration promised to withhold at least some federal funding from sanctuary cities.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at a news conference Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, in Chicago. Emanuel said the outcome of the U.S. presidential election will not impact Chicago's commitment as a sanctuary city for immigrants.

Photo Credit: Teresa Crawford/Associated Press

That’s a move 15th District GOP Congressman John Shimkus of Collinsville agrees with.

“I just think that there’s the law of the land, there’s elected representatives who represent their districts, and bills get signed into law, and when communities compare themselves above the law, I have a problem with that,” he said.

Eva says it’s hard to tell what President Trump is thinking one day to the next, but she also has high hopes for an immigration overhaul in the US, for her - and her son, and those like him.

“Because some of them come so young,” she said. “And they need just one opportunity to make America great! Cause we can we can do everything together, you know?”

U of I Professor Francis Boyle says he hopes to expand Urbana’s sanctuary status to Champaign, and is waiting on a possible meeting with city leaders there.