What are Sanctuary Cities and Why do they Exist? | Global Refuge

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News // Family Reunification

What are Sanctuary Cities and Why do they Exist?

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Global Refuge Staff

July 12, 2021

To combat closed borders, detention, and deportation, communities across the country are proclaiming sanctuary city status. Sanctuary cities exist from coast to coast and promote the ideals of human rights, separation of local and federal law, and empowerment of communities to grow with the help of immigrants. Cities that pursue sanctuary city policies do so for various reasons, all of which relate on some level to human rights and community growth.

What Are Sanctuary Cities?

The phrase sanctuary city is not a legal term, but one developed over time and more recently reflecting a response to ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) policies and actions. In general, a sanctuary city is a community with a policy, written or unwritten, that discourages local law enforcement from reporting the immigration status of individuals unless it involves investigation of a serious crime. These sanctuary communities go beyond cities, though. One can find entire counties and states declaring sanctuary status.

These communities typically do not honor requests by ICE to detain undocumented immigrants whom local agents apprehend for misdemeanor crimes or investigations. Many in sanctuary cities also refuse to deputize their local officers as federal agents, a necessary technicality if those local officers carry out the duties of ICE agents. There is no specific federal law against sanctuary city policies.

Lists of Sanctuary States in the United States

Sometimes the term “sanctuary” encompasses more than just a city. There are many counties across the United States that claim sanctuary county policies, and several states that consider their entire geographical location as a sanctuary. As of March 2021, the following states claim sanctuary status:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington

In addition, some of these sanctuary states also designate counties to have policies in place that discourage or prohibit cooperation between local law and federal agents when dealing with undocumented immigrants.

What Does a Sanctuary City Policy Really Do?

In terms of immigration issues, sanctuary city policies are often designed to respond to a series of events involving undocumented individuals. The following is an example of such a series of events, and how the sanctuary policies apply.

  • Initial Contact with Law Enforcement: This is often something relatively common, such as an officer pulling over a car for speeding or responding to a domestic incident. This initial contact has nothing to do with citizenship status.
  • Law Enforcement Detains an Individual: Law enforcement books and takes fingerprints of the individual at the local or county jail. Per protocol, these fingerprints go through the FBI database. ICE regulations require that state and federal agents share information regarding inmates.
  • ICE Gets Involved: If ICE records show the individual is undocumented, ICE sends a request to the local jail to detain the individual for an additional 48 hours beyond the original release day and time. This time buffer allows ICE to seek a warrant and begin the deportation process.
  • Local Authorities React:According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, local officers do not have to comply with ICE requests for additional detention, because doing so is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The reaction of the local authorities depends on any sanctuary policies in place. Cities or counties with sanctuary policies typically decline the requests and release the individual once the appropriate time for the initial contact has been met. This might be because of charges dropped, bail set and met, or no jail time sentenced. Some sanctuary cities will reject all detain requests they receive from ICE, while others comply under certain circumstances including gang involvement, prior felony records, or terrorist watch list status.

Cities without sanctuary policies often comply with ICE and detain the individual while ICE seeks a warrant for deportation. The undocumented individual might remain in the local jail during the deportation process, or ICE might transfer that person to a federal prison. Jails and prisons that detain undocumented immigrants often receive federal funds for doing so.

Why are there Sanctuary Cities?

Sanctuary cities today refer to those places where local law enforcement does not carry out the duties of ICE without a warrant or local court order. The history of sanctuary cities, however, focuses on the term sanctuary – or safe place. In 1971, Berkeley, CA became the first city to claim this status. Instead of questions of immigration, this sanctuary declared Berkeley a safe place for U.S. Navy soldiers who resisted the war in Vietnam.

Moving forward, sanctuary city policies often centered around supporting faith-based organizations and movements. This included those cities where religious movements were offering safe places for not only war resisters, but for refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. In the 1980s and 1990s, communities began to see sanctuary as more of a human rights issue than a religious one. The focus moved increasingly toward developing policies that would limit the involvement of local police with federal issues of immigration.

Modern Interpretation of Sanctuary Cities

As political debates surrounding immigration increased in the 2000s, so has the discussion around sanctuary cities. Throughout the country, many communities have reacted to harsh treatment of immigrants with the development of sanctuary city (or county or state) policies. They seek to provide refuge for immigrants, instead of persecution.

Why Do Communities Choose to be Sanctuary Cities?

In alignment with the history of sanctuary city policies, many communities are now choosing to develop policies that separate local law enforcement from potential deportation activities at the federal level. Under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the focus on deporting undocumented individuals has been increasing. This includes individuals who are law-abiding, and parents working and raising children in the U.S. There are several reasons why communities enact policies and regulations to define themselves as sanctuary cities.

  • A Human Rights Standpoint: Many people across the country see immigration as a positive process and human rights issue, and consider it the duty of U.S. citizens and officials to help protect all people. This includes people who are fleeing wars, poverty, and famine. Chicago is one such city, where the sanctuary policies – also known as the Welcoming City Ordinance – state that Chicago officials will not help investigate or prosecute individuals based solely on their resident status. Chicago also does not discriminate against non-citizens for city services intended for those in need, and even offers a local ID to use for transportation and library access.
  • A Constitutional Standpoint: Under the Constitution of the United States, being an undocumented immigrant is not actually a crime – it is a civil violation. Criminal violations allow for punishments such as jail time. Civil violations result in penalties. Currently. the accepted penalty for being in the United States undocumented is deportation. There are many who see this as a punishment, and therefore a human rights issue.

The undercurrent theme of the reasons for supporting sanctuary cities aligns with the idea that the United States is a country of immigrants. The generations that came before us empowered the cities of today, and communities across the country want to maintain that optimistic and humanistic point of view.

It is important to remember that sanctuary city officials do not promote breaking the law. Officials in these cities still take and report fingerprints to the FBI, as directed. Sanctuary policies allow local officers to decline enforcing a federal request for detention during deportation considerations. Instead of holding an individual in jail beyond the regular release date, local officials follow constitutional guidelines and their own legal regulations.

What are the Benefits of Sanctuary Cities? 

Communities across the country grapple with immigration issues. From a human rights standpoint, welcoming immigrants and providing them with resources and support will accomplish far more than detaining and deporting them ever will. The evidence shows that undocumented immigrants do not pose significant threats to communities, and they in fact positively impact them.

Sanctuary cities report positive outcomes, including the following:

  • Sanctuary cities have lower than average crime rates
  • Household incomes are higher in sanctuary cities
  • The poverty rate in sanctuary cities is lower on average than cities without these policies

Law enforcement at the local levels want to continue building positive relationships with all citizens – documented and undocumented. This encourages them to report crimes and concerns without fear of reprisal, and promotes community building instead of separating.

As the United States continues to grow both in population and ideals, it is important to look at immigration through the lens of humanity, rather than as a price tag for prisons. Sanctuary cities and communities continue to pave the way as examples.

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