What are Sanctuary Cities?

In carrying out one of his many campaign promises, on January 25, 2016, President Donald Trump issued an executive order instructing the U.S. government to withhold grant money from certain cities and counties across the country, identified as Sanctuary Cities, that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials. That directive, combined with his Muslim ban, proceeded to cast U.S. immigrant communities into a pit of fear and despair that echoes even now.

A Definition?

At the heart of this situation is an understanding of what is meant by the label, Sanctuary City. Unfortunately, no actual definition exists. Or maybe it is fortunate when viewed a different way. We’ll explore that possibility at the end of this article.

Generally, Sanctuary Cities are cities, counties and states that:

  • Have a large immigrant and undocumented population.
  • Offer a certain amount of welcome to undocumented aliens.
  • Make it less probable that undocumented people will come to the attention of federal immigration officials.
  • Tend to not cooperate as partners in U.S. immigration enforcement activities.

Sanctuary 4 - ICE officerSo are undocumented people then fully protected from federal authorities? The answer is no. No one in that category is ever completely safe from immigration agents. However, depending upon the city, county or state offering this limited sanctuary, undocumented people living in those areas have felt more secure because their locality has instituted one or more of the following policies restricting or prohibiting:

  • The sharing of information regarding the immigration and citizenship status of its population.
  • Cooperation with requests from federal officials to detain an individual already in custody for an additional 48 hours – allowing federal agents to further investigate that person’s immigration status.
  • The use of local law enforcement personnel and other resources to help with the actual enforcement of U.S. immigration efforts.
  • Federal agents from going into secured areas of their jails unless they have warrants.
  • Local law enforcement officers from being included in immigration patrols in cooperation with federal agents.

Why Sanctuary Cities take these kinds of stands

Sanctuary cities 1 - positive protest

Essentially, the city, county and state governments involved in these situations believe that it is not their responsibility to do the job of the federal government with regard to enforcing immigration policies. And specifically, they contend that their compliance with federal immigration enforcement, especially under Trump’s executive order, would:

  • Increase unwanted and illegal racial profiling within their jurisdictions.
  • Decrease the reporting of crimes within immigrant communities and discourage undocumented victims of crime to apply for assistance in dealing with such trauma.
  • Increase crime against undocumented people because criminals would quickly capitalize on their reluctance to call the police or seek redress in the courts.
  • Deter witnesses within immigrant communities to come forward or be inclined to cooperate.
  • Negatively impact already strained law enforcement resources.
  • Conflict with Constitutional law, including the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said the federal government cannot require state officials to enforce federal law – often called the “Anti-commandeering principal.”

The Threat and the Reprieve

The withholding of federal grant money under Trump’s executive order against Sanctuary Cities was originally considerable. California stood to lose up to $132 m +, New York City, $60 m + and Chicago, $28 m+. And although most Sanctuary Cities have vehemently resisted this order, regardless of potential for revenue loss, the mayor of one large metro area, Miami-Dade, immediately caved and instructed his county jails to comply with federal immigration detention requests.

The good news for undocumented people in the United States, however, is that a federal judge overturned Trump’s order. At least for right now. In his explanation of that decision, he said, “Upon finding that the administration may use it (the order) as ‘a weapon’ against a city or county it deems a Sanctuary City without actually defining what this is.”

So in the very muddiness of the term, Sanctuary City, just might be the major defense that keeps those cities, counties and states, including their immigrant communities, safe from further legal efforts by the present federal administration. Depending upon the information sources used, it is estimated there are between 165 and 608 non-federal government entities that could be called Sanctuary Cities with their own unique policies. And in that regard, it is this complexity that helps muddy the legal waters even more, possibly leading to the demise of yet another of Trump’s campaign promises.

And along that very line of thinking, on Monday, May 21, 2017, U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, issued a clarification in a further eroding of the president’s executive order. In his memo, he:

  1. Defined Sanctuary Cities as those places “that willfully refuse to comply” with federal law.
  2. Stated that the withholding of federal dollars will now only apply to a small group of grants rather than the broader flow of funding from Washington to states, cities and counties.

But Sessions also indicated how grants in the future may be given out only to a priority list of locations that keep undocumented people in custody long enough for federal agents to be involved. It remains to be seen how such a dispersal will be viewed by the courts. 

Sources for Further Information

Videos + articles

A Multimillion-dollar question: What’s a Sanctuary City (USA Today.com  56 sec.) 

How Sanctuary Cities work (Vox.com 5:17) 

What are Sanctuary Cities and can they be defunded? (CNN.com  1:23)



California judge blocks Trump Sanctuary City order (USA Today.com ) 

Justice Department Narrows Scope Of ‘Sanctuary Cities’ Executive Order (NPR) 

Sanctuary Cities: Map (Center for Immigration Studies.com) 

The White House’s claim that ‘sanctuary’ cities are violating the law (Washingtonpost.com) 

What is a Sanctuary City? And what happens now? (CBS News.com)

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