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Tucson Voters Will Soon Decide Whether To Declare 'Sanctuary City'

Tucson is preparing for a vote that could send a signal across the country.

On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to declare Tucson the state’s first “sanctuary city,” a term with no concrete legal definition which has nonetheless taken on a life of its own in national politics.

Proposition 205, the Tucson Families Free and Together initiative, has divided the community — a community that is already a self-declared “immigrant-welcoming city,” but much like other cities and states across the nation, the decision to embrace the sanctuary label, or not, has led to disagreements over the real impact on public safety, economics and even our humanity. 

John Sandweg served as acting director of ICE under President Barack Obama and said sanctuary policies are more symbolic than substantive. 

"Unfortunately now it's taken on this symbolic meaning," Sandweg said. "Even when there are legitimate law enforcement reasons to push such a policy, it's become this referendum on where you stand writ large regarding immigration."

While some such policies may impact federal authorities’ ability to operate, Sandweg said most won’t have a significant impact on immigration enforcement, but it’s an issue that has forced public officials to take an ideological stand, even if that doesn’t mean exactly what either side believes it does. 

"Immigration and border security issues have now become a wedge issue that are used to divide the country. And unfortunately I think that division is based, in large part, not on fact or reality," Sandweg said.

Sandweg said he met many chiefs of police during his time with ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, who had legitimate reasons to support sanctuary policies. They sought to show immigrants in their communities that they could report crime without the risk of deportation, and that was a powerful tool against people who were legitimate threats.

But the conversation has since changed, and Sandweg doesn’t see a clear resolution ahead for Tucson or the rest of the country.

"There's no way to enforce our way out of this problem," Sandweg said. "But I do think the people who are pro-enforcement kind of send a false message that there is a way to enforce our way out of the problem and it's just an issue of political will. Look, until we can get the facts out there about things like sanctuary cities, until we can get the facts out there about the limitations of immigration enforcement — about the demographics of the immigrant population — I worry that we're not going to get a bipartisan compromise that we really need."

In an attempt to separate fact from fiction and get a handle on what this vote means to Tucson, The Show sat down with Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, Peoples Defense Initiative Executive Director Zaira Livier and Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier.

The Show also spoke with Alise Coen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where she specializes in international politics and refugee and immigration politics. She believes this vote will reverberate far beyond Election Day, and likely far beyond Tucson.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.