Sanctuary cities: What are they?


close What are sanctuary cities and why are they so controversial in the illegal immigration debate?

What are sanctuary cities?

What are sanctuary cities and why are they so controversial in the illegal immigration debate?

President Donald Trump said Sunday that in order for his administration to extend the Obama-era protections for young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, several of his immigration policies must be enacted – including a crackdown on so-called “sanctuary cities.”

Aside from sanctuary cities, Trump wants to reduce the number of incoming refugees, employ thousands more Customs and Border Patrol agents and curtail the number of unaccompanied immigrants who come to the U.S. illegally.

“Unfortunately, over the last several decades respect for the rule of law has broken down and immigration enforcement has been sacrificed for the sake of political expediency. This has made us less secure and it cannot stand,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

There isn’t a firm legal definition for sanctuary cities, and different cities may have dissimilar rules for how much they comply with federal immigration authorities.

Here’s a look at what sanctuary cities are and why they are so controversial.

What are sanctuary cities?

While the exact specifications can vary, sanctuary city policies overall limit just how much local law enforcement officials cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

San Francisco, for example, passed an ordinance in 1989 that prohibits city employees, funds or resources from assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in enforcing federal immigration law unless it’s required by state or federal law.


It also passed an ordinance that limits when law enforcement officials can give ICE notice that an immigrant has been released from a local jail and prohibits law enforcement officials from cooperating with detainer requests from ICE.

Berkeley, near San Francisco, is reportedly the original sanctuary city. It passed a resolution in 1971 that protected sailors who wanted to resist the Vietnam War.

It’s difficult to nail down a concrete number of just how many cities are considered to be a sanctuary for immigrants – some cities have an ordinance or policy in place; others do not.


Aside from cities, at least five states – California, Oregon, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont – have enacted laws that limit how much police can contribute assistance to federal immigration agents, according to the New York Times.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) argues that counties– not just cities – should establish sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants.

How are they viewed?

The debate about sanctuary cities intensified in July 2015 when Katie Steinle, 32, was killed as she strolled along the San Francisco waterfront with her father. Steinle was fatally shot by a man with a criminal record who had slipped into the U.S. multiple times illegally.


Sessions addressed a roomful of federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials in July and criticized cities like Philadelphia that are "giving sanctuary" to criminals. He asked them to "reconsider the harm they are doing to their residents."

ILRC argues that local law enforcement jurisdictions do not have a “legal obligation to assist with civil immigration enforcement, which is the responsibility of the federal government.”

“A local decision to offer resources to federal immigration enforcement authorities is completely voluntary,” the legal organization said in a 2016 report.

ILRC called Trump’s threat to restrict federal funding of sanctuary cities “purely retaliatory in motivation.”

Many mayors of these cities have also bucked the threat and continued to affirm protection for immigrants.

"We are not going to sacrifice a half-million people who live amongst us, who are part of our communities, whose family members and loved ones happen to be people in many cases who are either permanent residents or citizens,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said last November.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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