What is a Sanctuary City? An Explainer

By Kosoko Jackson and Sara Tabatabaie

In an executive order last month and in recent television interviews, the president is threatening to defund sanctuary cities by stripping the cities of federal funding.

But what is a sanctuary city? Why is it important? How would federal funding changes affect these places, and why should I pause my ‘What dairy product are you based on your zodiac sign’ quiz to learn about it?

Glad you asked…

What is a sanctuary cIty?

A sanctuary city (or sanctuary jurisdiction) is a city, municipality, or county that does not provide local resources or budget to help enforce federal immigration policy.

For example, if an undocumented person is stopped by the police for any reason, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may request that the person is detained for several days so they can obtain a federal warrant to deport that undocumented person.

Because keeping someone in jail without a warrant violates the 4th Amendment of the Constitution, a federal appeals court ruled in 2014 that detainer requests are optional. It is up to the jurisdiction to decide whether to comply with the detention request, using their own resources to keep the person in custody.

In a sanctuary city, this request would be denied, and therefore the person would be released once the criminal case is complete.

Where are sanctuary cities?

There are nearly 300 jurisdictions nationwide, conservative and liberal, that do not assist ICE in detaining inmates without a warrant, and therefore are considered ‘sanctuary locations.’ A large number of major US cities are sanctuary cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, though many conservative and rural areas are also sanctuary jurisdictions.

The reasons to deny an ICE request for extended detention are as plentiful and diverse as sanctuary areas themselves:

  • Any county or jail that holds an individual without a warrant is subject to lawsuits by civil rights organizations like the ACLU because it violates the 4th Amendment.
  • Police departments, sheriffs’ departments, and jails are not reimbursed by the federal government for the cost of detaining individuals. Local agencies pay for the cost of enforcing federal policies.
  • There are areas where local agencies sometimes cooperate with ICE, but not unconditionally. For example, in cases when individuals in custody have a criminal record; however, this new executive order would still consider that a ‘sanctuary’ since ICE requests are sometimes denied.
  • Some elected officials or law enforcement leaders have cited the need to ensure that undocumented people are not afraid of the police, so all residents are comfortable reporting an emergency.
  • There is fear that in areas where local agencies coordinate with ICE, law enforcement will target people who look like someone who they think would be an undocumented immigrant, causing an increase in racial profiling and harassment of minorities.

How do sanctuary cities affect our generation?

Whether we have family members, classmates, or are ourselves undocumented immigrants, many of us are affected by the policies of our local agencies in relation to ICE.

In sanctuary areas, there may be decreased fear of police officers, as residents know that law enforcement is less likely to target minority groups for immigration purposes. In areas that do cooperate with ICE, people may be fearful of even interacting with law enforcement, as they know that people can still be detained and potentially deported without being convicted of a crime.

Many colleges inside sanctuary cities, such as University of Michigan — Ann Arbor, have resisted orders from this administration to release the citizenship status of their student populations. Additionally, these schools forbid ICE agents from entering school grounds to conduct searches or detain those suspected of being undocumented immigrants.

Currently, there is even a movement to create sanctuary campuses for students without legal immigration statuses. Just recently, students from over 100 universities urged their campuses to make their schools sanctuary campuses.

What does the order mean for sanctuary cities?

An executive order issued by President Trump has firmly claimed that if cities do not give up their sanctuary status, they could lose federal funding.

Most state government revenue comes from state levied-taxes, but states also receive funding from the federal government including payments for Medicaid, education funding assistance, support for infrastructure projects, emergency relief, and much more.

Because states receive important funding from the federal government, the federal government is able to exert influence over state and local laws by withholding funding.

This executive order is meant to strong arm jurisdictions not only to adhere to ICE requests on detaining individuals, but also for schools within these areas to provide ICE agents with student immigration records.

Any sanctuary city or jurisdiction that does not comply risks losing federal funding.

What can we do about it?

First, we can learn about our own communities. Do our cities work directly with ICE to detain people without warrants? Do our counties or our campuses? Would we prefer that it’s different?

The best way to impact the statuses of our communities is to vote in local elections. Whether it’s for mayor, sheriff, or city council, we must work to elect officials in-line with our values. Sign up here to receive election alerts and vote in your community.

We are the most diverse generation in history, and we are powerful. It’s up to us to take action and create the future we want for ourselves and for generations to come.

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