After reports surfaced on Thursday that the Trump administration had repeatedly pushed immigration officials toward a plan to release detained immigrants in so-called sanctuary cities, where local law enforcement is barred from cooperating with federal immigration authorities, the president confirmed the reports on Friday.
"Due to the fact that Democrats are unwilling to change our very dangerous immigration laws, we are indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing Illegal Immigrants in Sanctuary Cities only," President Donald Trump tweeted Friday.
Immigration advocates quickly pushed back against the notion that releasing detainees into sanctuary cities would pose a serious risk to residents there.
"Families and children arriving at our border to seek protection should be treated humanely and with dignity, not used as political pawns. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with releasing asylum seekers from detention," says Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst for the American Immigration Council. "The vast majority of asylum seekers have no criminal record and pose no harm to anyone. Many have friends or relatives in the United States that they could live with, and would simply travel to their next destination."
Though Trump and his allies often cast detained immigrants as criminals, no one in immigration detention is there for violent crimes: Being in the U.S. unlawfully is generally considered a civil offense, rather than a criminal one, and immigrants are sometimes detained while they await the outcome of their asylum cases or deportation proceedings.
The number of people arriving on the southern border with children has been growing for years, and, since last fall, the majority of people arriving at the border have been immigrants traveling as family units—most of them from Central America. Because a federal statute limits the amount of time children can remain in jail to 20 days, the government must release most of these families within that time.
Even in the criminal justice system, parole isn't unusual for non-violent crimes: Many people who are arrested pay bond or otherwise secure release from jail while they await the results of their court cases. The same is true for detained immigrants who are released: They remain in the legal system, often with ankle bracelets, and await the outcomes of their asylum cases or deportation proceedings.
According to Reichlin-Melnick, when immigrants are released en masse, the people who are really in danger are the immigrants themselves.
Until recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement coordinated with non-profits and shelters to manage the well-being of immigrants as they were released from detention. But last fall, Pacific Standard reported that ICE claimed its detention centers were at capacity, and the agency began releasing large groups of detained families at bus stations and onto the street, without ensuring that those released had housing or transportation (a practice it has continued to the current day).
"Dropping off families at bus stations with no resources or plans to get to their final destination is the wrong way to deal with the current situation at the border," Reichlin-Melnick says. "And deliberately releasing families in cities where local governments don't cooperate with ICE would be an attempt to manufacture chaos."
Volunteers in border communities like El Paso have come together to house immigrants, as well as to offer them cell phones to call loved ones and arrange transportation. This is why Reichlin-Melnick says he's sure any disruption the release of immigrants would have on sanctuary cities would be short-lived.
"In recent months, communities across the border have come together to open their arms to those fleeing harm," Reichlin-Melnick says, "and I am certain that would happen again if ICE began releasing families in cities further from the border."