A Brief Overview of Sanctuary Cities

People protesting President Trump’s order banning sanctuary cities
Immigration Activists Protest President Trump’s Sanctuary City Ban. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

While the term has no specific legal definition, a “sanctuary city” in the United States is a city or county in which undocumented immigrants are protected from deportation or prosecution for violations of U.S. federal immigration laws.

In both a legal and practical sense, “sanctuary city” is a rather vague and informal term. It can, for example, indicate that the city has actually enacted laws that restrict what their police and other employees are allowed to do during encounters with undocumented immigrants. On the other hand, the term has also been applied to cities like Houston, Texas, which calls itself a “welcoming city” to undocumented immigrants but have no specific laws regarding enforcement of federal immigration laws. 

In an example of a states’ rights conflict arising from the U.S. system of federalism, sanctuary cities refuse to use any local funds or police resources to enforce the national government’s immigration laws. Police or other municipal employees in sanctuary cities are not allowed to ask a person about their immigration, naturalization, or citizenship status for any reason. In addition, sanctuary city policies forbid police and other city employees from notifying federal immigration enforcement officers of the presence of undocumented immigrants living in or passing through the community.

Due to its limited resources and the scope of the immigration enforcement job, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) must rely on local police to help enforce federal immigration laws. However, federal law does not require local police to locate and detain undocumented immigrants just because ICE requests they do so.

Sanctuary city policies and practices may be established by local laws, ordinances or resolutions, or simply by practice or custom.

In September 2015, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency estimated that about 300 jurisdictions—cities and counties—nationwide had sanctuary city laws or practices. Examples of large U.S. cities with sanctuary laws or practices include San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Boston, Detroit, Seattle, and Miami.

U.S. “sanctuary cities” should not be confused with “cities of sanctuary” in the United Kingdom and Ireland that apply local policies of welcoming and encouraging the presence of refugees, asylum seekers, and others seeking safety from political or religious persecution in their countries of origin.

Brief History of Sanctuary Cities

The concept of sanctuary cities is far from new. The Old Testament’s Book of Numbers speaks of six cities in which persons who had committed murder or manslaughter were allowed to claim asylum. From 600 CE until 1621 C.E., all churches in England were allowed to grant sanctuary to criminals and some cities were designated as criminal and political sanctuaries by Royal charter. 

In the United States, cities and counties began adopting immigrant sanctuary policies in the late 1970s. In 1979, the Los Angeles police department adopted an internal policy known as “Special Order 40,” which stated, "Officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person. Officers shall not arrest nor book persons for violation of title 8, section 1325 of the United States Immigration code (Illegal Entry).”

Political and Legislative Actions on Sanctuary Cities

As the number of sanctuary cities grew over the next two decades, both the federal and state governments began taking legislative actions to require full enforcement of federal immigration laws. 

On September 30, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 addressing the relationship between the federal government and local governments. The law focuses on illegal immigration reform and includes some of the toughest measures ever taken against illegal immigration. Aspects considered in the law include border enforcement, penalties for alien smuggling and document fraud, deportation and exclusion proceedings, employer sanctions, welfare provisions, and changes to existing refugee and asylum procedures. In addition, the law prohibits cities from banning municipal workers for reporting persons' immigration status to federal authorities.

A section of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 allows local police agencies to obtain training in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. However, it fails to provide state and local law enforcement agencies with any general powers for immigration enforcement.

Some States Oppose Sanctuary Cities

Even in some states housing sanctuary or sanctuary-like cities and counties, legislatures and governors have taken steps to ban them.In May 2009, Georgia’s Governor Sonny Perdue signed state Senate Bill 269, a law prohibiting Georgia cities and counties from adopting sanctuary city policies.

In June 2009, Tennessee’s Governor Phil Bredesen signed state Senate Bill 1310 banning local governments from enacting sanctuary city ordinances or policies.

In June 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry called a special session of the state legislature to consider state Senate Bill 9, a proposed law banning sanctuary cities. While public hearings on the bill were held before the Texas Senate’s Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, it was never considered by the full Texas legislature.

In January 2017, Texas Governor Greg Abbott threatened to oust any local officials who promoted sanctuary city laws or policies. “We are working on laws that will ... ban sanctuary cities [and] remove from office any officer-holder who promotes sanctuary cities,” stated Gov. Abbott.

President Trump Takes Action

On January 25, 2017 U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” which, in part, directed the Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General to withhold funding in the form of federal grants from sanctuary jurisdictions that refuse to comply with federal immigration law.

Specifically, Section 8 (a) of the executive order states, “In furtherance of this policy, the Attorney General and the Secretary, in their discretion and to the extent consistent with law, shall ensure that jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373 (sanctuary jurisdictions) are not eligible to receive Federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes by the Attorney General or the Secretary.”

In addition, the order directed the Department of Homeland Security to begin issuing weekly public reports that include “a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens.”

Sanctuary Jurisdictions Dig In

Sanctuary jurisdictions wasted no time in reacting to President Trump’s action.

In his State of the State address, California’s Governor Jerry Brown vowed to defy President Trump’s action. “I recognize that under the Constitution, federal law is supreme and that Washington determines immigration policy,” stated Gov. Brown. “But as a state, we can and have had a role to play … And let me be clear: we will defend everybody - every man, woman, and child - who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged $1 million in city funds to create a legal defense fund for immigrants threatened with prosecution due to President Trump’s order. “Chicago has in the past been a sanctuary city. ... It always will be a sanctuary city,” said the mayor.

On January 27, 2017, Salt Lake City Mayor Ben McAdams stated he would refuse to enforce President Trump’s order. “There has been fear and uncertainty among our refugee population the last few days,” McAdams said. “We want to reassure them that we love them and their presence is an important part of our identity. Their presence makes us better, stronger and richer.”

In Tragic 2015 Shooting, Sanctuary Cities Stir Debate

The tragic July 1, 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle thrust sanctuary city laws into the center of controversy.

While visiting San Francisco’s Pier 14, the 32-year old Steinle was killed by a single bullet fired from a pistol admittedly held at the time by Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant.

Garcia Zarate, a citizen of Mexico, had been deported several times and had been convicted for illegal re-entry into the United States. Days before the shooting, he had been released from a San Francisco jail after a minor drug charge against him was dismissed. Although U.S. immigration officials had issued an order that police detain him, Garcia Zarate was released him under San Francisco’s sanctuary city laws.

The uproar over sanctuary cities grew on December 1, 2017, when a jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, finding him guilty only of illegally possessing a fire arm.

In his trial, Garcia Zarate claimed he had just found the gun and that the shooting of Steinle had been an accident.

In acquitting him, the jury found reasonable doubt in Garcia Zarate’s accidental shooting claim, and under the Constitution’s guarantee of “due process of law,” guarantee, his criminal record, history of prior convictions, and immigration status were not allowed to be presented as evidence against him. 

Critics of permissive immigration laws reacted to the case by complaining that sanctuary city laws too often allow dangerous, criminal illegal immigrants to remain on the streets.