When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decided to fly dozens of Venezuelan migrants to Martha's Vineyard two weeks ago without notice, it was part of an effort to fire up a political storm surrounding immigration policies in so-called sanctuary states. But what exactly is a sanctuary state? Boston College Law Associate Clinical Professor Mary Holper, director of the school’s immigration clinic, joined GBH’s Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to break down that question and the policies behind the politics of the situation on Martha's Vineyard. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Jeremy Siegel: Sanctuary states, sanctuary cities: What are they and what are they not?
Mary Holper: When I think of sanctuary, I think much more back to the history of it. It started in the 1980s, and it was during the civil wars in Central America when migrants were fleeing. And the asylum claims were routinely being denied because the U.S. government was allied with the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments. And so churches stepped in to provide sanctuary to the migrants, giving them temporary shelter and protection from deportation. And this was a form of civil disobedience at first, a protest to the moral policies that they believed were unfairly discriminating politically against the migrants.
And then when the cities took on the label of "sanctuary" cities, the sort of civil disobedience component was gone. They held themselves out to be sanctuary cities because they refused to assist the federal deportation machine. Today, I would say the correct meaning of a sanctuary city is literally "we are not immigration agents and we can't be forced to do your work for you."
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Paris Alston: What does that mean for a place like Massachusetts? Does it fall within that definition of what you're describing as a sanctuary destination? And how does that work in accordance with our immigration laws?
Holper: To be clear, Massachusetts, I wouldn't describe as a sanctuary state. There are sanctuary cities within Massachusetts. And it certainly appears that government that Gov. Charlie Baker prefers to leave it to the cities as opposed to taking on Massachusetts as a sanctuary state.
"To be clear, Massachusetts, I wouldn't describe as a sanctuary state."-Prof. Mary Holper, Director of the Immigration Clinic at Boston College Law School
So we do have sanctuary cities within Massachusetts. Boston is one of them. What that means, then, is that we aren't going to ask about immigration status when we investigate crimes so that when [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] comes asking to look at our files, we don't have any of that information to turn over.
I will say that sanctuary cities became sort of a dirty word during the Trump administration. I think the Trump administration flipped it to mean something akin to obstruction of justice, that they are actively doing something to get in the way of the immigration enforcement authorities, instead of just, "we're not going to help."
Siegel: Let's talk a little bit about the situation that's unfolded on Martha's Vineyard, because Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was facilitating this flight to highlight the state's immigration policies or the fact, as you just laid out, that Massachusetts allows there to be sanctuary jurisdictions within the state.
Looking at a statement from DeSantis' office, it says "Florida's program gave these migrants a fresh start in a sanctuary state, and these individuals opted to take advantage of chartered flights to Massachusetts. It was disappointing that Martha's Vineyard called in the Massachusetts National Guard to bus them away from the island within 48 hours." This is referring to the fact that the migrants were then provided temporary housing on Joint Base Cape Cod.
What will ultimately happen with these 50 migrants that were sent to Martha's Vineyard?
Holper: Well, I do find it highly ironic that in sending them up here, they didn't do any of the work to change the venue of their deportation cases, which right now are supposed to be in Texas. So ironically, it's going to be harder, much harder, for them to comply with all the procedures in place to make sure that they get back to their Texas immigration hearings. Because none of that immigration assistance, like "we'll help you file a change of venue motion," has been done, at least as part of this whole scheme, this whole political maneuver. His actions would suggest that what he thinks of as a sanctuary city would be someone who provides shelter, food, welcomes.
"Ironically, it's going to be harder, much harder, for them to comply with all the procedures in place to make sure that they get back to their Texas immigration hearings."-Prof. Mary Holper, Director of the Immigration Clinic at Boston College Law School
Obviously the political move behind it is that welcome mat is going to wear thin if there are too many people who arrive. But it would be odd for him to send migrants to a sanctuary city if what he thinks about and he means by that is a city that obstructs justice. Because why would he want to be complicit in the obstruction of justice, if we're taking on sort of the Trump meaning of sanctuary cities?
Alston: The 50 people that were sent here is really a small fraction of the numbers of people that we see crossing the border in places like Texas every day. Is there an argument here, Mary, that — to the point of what governors like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott have said — that those locations are getting overwhelmed and that the rest of the country should be sharing in some of this responsibility if there are places who have said, "OK, we are going to be welcome to folks who are seeking asylum here"?
Holper: Sure, we all should be sharing in the welcoming and sharing in the helping people. Everybody should be playing the role. And this is the conversation that happens with respect to countries and whether they should take in refugees. You know, we can't just say, "It's not our problem. We're full." Now, obviously, what is a really bad idea is to do it in such a chaotic and deceitful way. When refugees are resettled abroad, there is a plan. There is somebody who meets them at the airport. There is somebody who literally has housing and everything all set up for them.
So there's an orderliness that could have happened that of course, didn't. And then there's a real deceit problem here, which was a lot of those pamphlets that were given took literal language out of what is given to refugees in the resettlement programs, which would suggest that you are already in a category who get certain benefits provided to you, which was not the case.