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What Does It Mean to Be a “Sanctuary City”?

In 2015, more than 200 state and local jurisdictions, known as “sanctuary cities,” chose to not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In 2017, an executive order signed by President Trump stated that sanctuary jurisdictions will not be eligible for federal grants. Since then, certain federal courts have blocked or restrained that order, and many mayors have continued to resist taking part in federal immigration control.

Sanctuary cities have been a national talking point regarding immigration policies. Just what are they, and what do they do?

The Beginning of the Sanctuary Movement

Sanctuary cities come from a church-centered movement the 1980s. Thousands of Central American refugees fled to the United States seeking asylum from civil wars in their home countries, and were denied asylum. Churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions banded together to oppose the removal of these refugees back to the countries where they had been persecuted. This became known as the Sanctuary Movement. Currently, certain sanctuary cities include major metropolises such as Los Angeles, Houston, and New York.

What Do Sanctuary Cities Do?

One major misconception about sanctuary cities is that these communities actively protect undocumented immigrants from any enforcement action against them.

Sanctuary jurisdictions do not actually shield immigrants from deportation or shelter undocumented immigrants from detection. Most will still cooperate with federal agencies to an extent, such as by sending in the fingerprints of anyone sent to jail, or renting jail space to the federal government to house immigrant detainees.

Examples of Sanctuary Policies

Each sanctuary city’s policies are different. Policies can include using city funds to provide legal services to their immigrant communities regardless if those immigrants are documented or otherwise; allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses; and others. They might also include restricting police from making arrests for federal immigration violations, prohibiting agreements through which ICE deputizes local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law, and restricting immigration enforcement in various locations.

One example of a sanctuary policy would be if an undocumented immigrant is charged with a minor offense (such as driving without a license) within a certain city’s jurisdiction, he or she must serve associated jail time or pay fines. He or she is then let go, without involving federal immigration officials.

The intent of sanctuary policies is to strengthen resident–police relations so that anyone, regardless of immigrant status, feels safe enough to report crimes to the police; and allow local police to determine how they will allocate their resources.

Are Sanctuary Policies Legal?

Sanctuary policies are not necessarily against the law, and in writing are generally in compliance with the law. Jurisdictions are not mandated to comply with immigration enforcement, and forcing compliance with immigration enforcement can be unconstitutional. Keeping an undocumented immigrant in custody, even after he or she is eligible for release from criminal custody, has been ruled a violation of the Fourth Amendment in at least one U.S. court.

Why Have Sanctuary Policies?

Many undocumented immigrants live in the United States for a variety of reasons, and have the opportunity to claim asylum or any other defenses in an immigration court. Hundreds of thousands of people are waiting in line for immigration hearings, slowing the process down considerably. As of 2017, the wait time had stretched to at least 2022. While they wait, many immigrants choose to live close to friends and family and become part of their local communities. It is with this in mind that multiple local and state law enforcement agencies prioritize working directly with immigrant communities, which may include documented and undocumented immigrants. Officials say that this fosters trust within their communities and make their cities safer, as immigrants feel free to aid law enforcement in solving and stopping crimes without fear of being deported just for speaking up.

Supporters of community policing, such as the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, point out that immigration enforcement diverts funds away from public safety concerns. They also maintain that since immigration is a federal responsibility, immigration reform on a national scale would be more effective than enlisting local communities to perform the federal government’s functions.

Opposing Viewpoints and Controversy

While Democratic politicians typically support sanctuary policies and more lenient immigration policies, most Republican politicians want tougher and stricter immigration laws. Opponents of sanctuary cities cite cases of crimes allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants. One case of note is the death of Kate Steinle, a woman fatally shot by an immigrant who had recently been released from jail. Her family attempted to sue the city of San Francisco for its sanctuary policies. Her death has been used as evidence against sanctuary policies by opponents.

It’s important to remember that, while not illegal, sanctuary policies are informal arrangements: legal protections are not guaranteed, and they vary by location. While sanctuary policies can ensure some level of safety for undocumented immigrants, it’s best to have a knowledgeable and compassionate family-based immigration lawyer to help you know your rights and get you through the immigration process. Call our New York legal team at Pollack, Pollack, Isaac & DeCicco, LLP, at 212-203-4795 or contact us online today.


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