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A Guide to Sanctuary Cities: What are they? Should the U.S. allow them?

By Bradley Shanker

What is a sanctuary city?

Up to this point there is no legal definition of a sanctuary city, with the most common explanation being that a sanctuary city offers safe refuge for undocumented immigrants who might have otherwise been deported. In the United States, there are currently over 200 sanctuary cities. These cities ignore the federal law on prosecuting illegal immigrants and do not comply with the U.S Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE. For example, if an illegal immigrant with no documentation is pulled over by a law enforcement officer for a driving violation, the officer working in the sanctuary city will neither take the immigrant into custody nor contact ICE for deportation services. A few of the more prominent sanctuary cities are New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, among others.


How can a city become a sanctuary city?

There is no specific route or qualification needed to become a sanctuary city. Likewise, the commitment to becoming a sanctuary city is not official through the U.S. government’s eyes. However, according to the Congressional Research Service, a city becomes a sanctuary city when it enforces “a state or local act, ordinance, policy, fiscal constraint” and “places limits on their assistance to federal immigration authorities seeking to apprehend and remove unauthorized aliens.” What this basically means is that a city takes the title of “sanctuary city” by limiting cooperation with ICE and the FBI, by working to improve conditions for illegal, undocumented immigrants, by reducing illegal immigrants’ correspondence with the criminal justice system, and, lastly, by ensuring access to legal assistance for all people living within the city – no matter their legal resident or citizenship status.


President Trump’s stance:

On Wednesday, January 25th, President Trump signed an executive order in which he promised to withhold federal money from cities that claim the titles of sanctuary cities. This executive order would leave the decision of designating sanctuary cities to John F. Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security. A law from 1996 prohibits cities from withholding information about citizens’ legal statuses, which has led to President Trump stating that sanctuary cities are in violation of the law. However, according to NYU law scholar, Barry Friedman, “The federal government can’t demand that state officials or local officials do their work,” Friedman says because of the Tenth Amendment and a court precedent called Printz v. United States. Therefore, the federal government can’t make it mandatory for local police officers to collect immigration information from their suspects. Friedman says that “as long as sanctuary cities don’t cut off communication with immigration officials about the information they don’t have, they’re likely to stay on the right side of the law.” All things considered, federalism gives local police departments a freedom and separation that police departments in other countries don’t have. So, this leaves President Trump with one huge advantage: funding (money). This is why he has threatened to cut federal funding for the sanctuary cities. Some states have taken the threat to heart, while others have scoffed at it. For example, Chicago, Seattle, and New York have all kept to their claim as being sanctuary cities and will continue to do so. While others, such as Miami, decided to instruct prisons and jails to notify ICE if they are housing an undocumented, illegal immigrant.

Should the US allow Sanctuary cities?

Sanctuary cities are complicated with regard to their function and interaction with the government. Sanctuary cities must cooperate with the federal government and law enforcement agencies. According to Temple University’s law professor, Jan Ting, “Sanctuary cities became controversial after a series of high-profile crimes were committed against innocent victims by illegal immigrants who had been released from detention by local authorities — without notification to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau of the Department of Homeland Security.” While some may argue that Sanctuary cities have a legal right to defy the federal government, it is important that these cities cooperate with the federal government. According to Cesar Vargas, a former national Latino strategist for Bernie Sanders, “It is not only legally defensible but crucial to our national security for cities and states to be allowed to pass and uphold sanctuary laws to assure taxpaying residents — regardless of immigration status — that their local government will protect them from federal overreach.” He goes on to explain that many cities across the nation have not complied to work with the ICE because “they think that cooperating with ICE causes them problems with respect to the immigrant community and public safety, but in fact it does exactly the opposite.” While both sides of the spectrum on this issue are valid, cooperation with the federal government is very important and funding these programs should not be a requirement of our government.

The future of Sanctuary cities?

The issue of sanctuary cities definitely became a bigger concern during the most recent, somewhat tumultuous presidential campaign, as well as in local elections. However, the complexity of these cities and cases ultimately make it extremely difficult to reach any national consensus on the issue.