City News

How much of a ‘sanctuary city’ is Madison? It depends who you ask

Dozens rallied at the state Capitol in May, aiming to put a spotlight on the importance of the immigrant community in Madison. 

Image By: Amileah Sutliff

As Wisconsin lawmakers debate a controversial immigration bill, Madison’s future as a so-called sanctuary city remains uncertain.

The new legislation would bar local governments from enacting “sanctuary” policies that block or hinder federal immigration enforcement. If passed, non-compliant cities would face fines of up to $5,000 a day, and would not be eligible for some state funding.

Earlier this year, Mayor Paul Soglin said Madison has “made the point” that it is a sanctuary city — but because there is no legal definition of the term, assistant City Attorney Marci Paulsen was unable to say whether or not it officially is.

“We’re sitting back and monitoring it, but it’s open for interpretation,” she said.

Madison police still comply with requests from federal immigration authorities — such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement — when those requests are legal, according to Paulsen. But according to Madison Police Chief Mike Koval, immigration enforcement is not a high priority in Madison’s model of community policing.

"We are not a federal immigration authority," Koval said in a November 2016 press conference. "Their mission is not our mission."

And city lawmakers have echoed the same sentiment.

“We do not think that municipalities should be in charge of federal law enforcement on immigration,” said Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, District 5. “I forcefully oppose [the state immigration bill]. I think it’s an ill-placed piece of legislation.”

In February, the Common Council passed a resolution that condemned three of President Donald Trump’s immigration-related executive orders. Bidar-Sielaff, who sponsored the resolution, said that its passage reflected the Common Council’s steadfast stance against the use of city resources for federal immigration enforcement.

“We have clear policies that state that our police department is not going to be asking for immigration status as part of their day-to-day interactions with residents of our city,” she said.

But even as the resolution gained traction at City Hall, Soglin seemed to have second thoughts on how far local ordinances should go in resisting state immigration policy. Worried Madison could take financial hits from the Republican-controlled legislature, he said he would veto the resolution if it created a “safe space” in City Hall. The bill later passed with revised language.

“Let us understand that we are far more vulnerable from a state government, which has far more power to remove our funding than the federal government,” Soglin wrote. “We do not have the supportive network of other cities if action is taken against us.”

“We have made the point that we are a sanctuary city,” he continued. “We are committed to justice. The law is on our side. Let us avoid a futile gesture that may make us feel good, but that does not add to the sanctity of our position and only creates enormous risk.”

Other Wisconsin cities have grappled with the definition of what it means to be a sanctuary city. Earlier this year, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett resisted efforts to classify Milwaukee as a sanctuary city, citing concerns over loss of federal funding.

Senate Bill 275 was approved by the Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform on Nov. 3, and is now available for scheduling before the full body of the State Senate. 

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