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What Is A Sanctuary City, And Will Columbus Become One?

A petition that would change Columbus into a sanctuary city has gathered over 2,000 signatures.

President-Elect Donald Trump has promised to deport two to three million undocumented immigrants during his first days in office. That's caused a movement of "sanctuary" cities and universities across the country, including here in Columbus.

On a Thursday night, a dozen students cram in to a small office in Hagerty Hall. 

There's pizza, open lap tops, and backpacks piled up on the floor. This is a monthly meeting for a group of Ohio State University students who live in the U.S. under DACA; Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

These students were all born in different countries like China, Brazil, and Mexico, but as young children, their parents brought them to live in the U.S.

Mandated by the Obama administration in 2012, DACA temporarily grants these students legal status and work permits, but President-Elect Trump has said on the campaign trail that he'd like to see it go away.

Tonight is their first meeting since the election, and anxieties are running high.

"Like, this is the only place I've ever been able to call home. This is the place I grew up in and felt safe at. But after the elections, it no longer felt like home," says DACA student Jessica Camacho.

Camacho is not alone. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that some 28,000 undocumented immigrants reside in Franklin County, and Trump's immigration policies could have a significant effect on each of them.

That's compelled some Columbus residents to start a petition demanding that their city become a sanctuary city.

Credit Esther Honig
At a protest on Monday at the Statehouse, attendants cheered for a petition that would change Columbus into a sanctuary city.

What exactly is a sanctuary city?

Ned Hill, a professor of Public Affairs at OSU, says it's essentially a political statement.

"It's a political statement against nativism," says Hill. "It's a political statement that we welcome newcomers."

In the U.S., there are at least 300 sanctuary cities. Hill says the policies that defines them can vary. It can be as simple as a statement made by city officials, who say "immigrants are welcome here."

And it can be much more drastic. In the case of cities like San Francisco, officials have prohibited police from enforcing federal immigration law. That bans immigration raids, or sharing a person's immigration status with Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE.

Hill says cities like San Francisco are clearly violating U.S. immigration law. But he says that's complicated by deportations that could tear families apart.

"When you have the absence of policy -- and we've had an absence of a real conversation on migration policy -- you're going to end up with a mess. Congratulations, we're there," says Hill.

Efforts in Columbus

This week, Columbus City Council heard pleas to designate Columbus as a sanctuary city. A petition has gathered over 2,000 signatures.

But in the end, it's up to the mayor to decide.

In a written statement, Mayor Andrew Ginther did not say whether he would support the petition, only that the city "will not support irresponsible and inhumane immigration policies."

In Columbus, current policies require say if police arrest an undocumented immigrant for violating the law, no matter how minor, their arrest information is shared with ICE.

Franklin County sheriff's deputies and Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers do the same.

Walking a fine legal line

Jessica Vaughan is with the Center for Immigration Studies that supports stricter immigration policy and has been cited as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. She says any communities that are considering make the switch to sanctuary status should tread lightly.

She says those who don't enforce federal immigration law could soon face serious retributions.

"The U.S. congress passed a law that says no jurisdiction can in any way restrict communication on federal immigration enforcement."

Vaughn says in the next year, policies could be in place to deny these sanctuary cities access to grants from the Department of Justice.

Donald Trump has said he will off cut even more federal funding to sanctuary cities.

Vaughan says few communities can afford to lose the money.

"If it crosses the line into violation of federal law, they're going to be subject to penalties," says Vaughn.

Still going forward

Back on the OSU campus, the students in Hagerty Hall are discussing how they will move forward in the coming months.

Last week, thousands of OSU students joined countless schools across the country, from Texas to California and Illinois, in petitioning their school’s administration for a “sanctuary" campus.

Among other things, Jessica Camacho says they're demanding the university not share student information with ICE, or permit raids on campus.

"We want the higher-up admissions and our school to be the first step in saying that this is a safe campus for undocumented students," says Camacho.

Because federal law already prohibits educational institutes from sharing student information with a third party, these students understand that a sanctuary campus is largely symbolic.

Still, they agree that having the recognition of their community is a starting point. 

"DACA gave me a voice. It gave me power it gave me the ability to fight back. " says Camacho. "I will not let Donald Trump take that away so easily." 

OSU students have already started an effort to appeal to Governor John Kasich for his protection of undocumented people in Ohio. Kasich declined to comment for this story.

Editors note: The original version of this story failed to report that the Center for Immigration Studies had been listed has a hate group for its ties with extremist white supremacy groups.