This post is the first in a series on sanctuary cities. Access the full series here.

Cities, counties, and states are designated a “sanctuary jurisdiction” when they implement any one policy that in some way limits the use of local law enforcement resources–like personnel or facilities–to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in carrying out federal immigration responsibilities. There are currently about 300 sanctuary jurisdictions in the U.S. that have implemented some kind of sanctuary policy.

Sanctuary policies fall on a spectrum—from total noncompliance to promising help only when resources are available. In some sanctuary jurisdictions, police officers are prohibited from inquiring about immigration status when taking someone into custody. In others, local law enforcement refuses to enforce ICE detainers unless the overlap with warrant requirements for liability reasons. Regardless of the specific policy, any sanctuary policy deems a jurisdiction a “sanctuary” for the undocumented population. 

Most often, sanctuary policies relate to the treatment by the local law enforcement of undocumented persons who have not committed any serious crimes, who have posted bail, or who have completed their sentences. If an individual—undocumented or otherwise—is arrested for a serious crime, the police routinely charge them and hold them in custody, regardless of immigration status.

Using a detainer request, ICE often asks local law enforcement to hold that person beyond what is allowed by a judicial warrant in order to investigate a potential immigration violation. The issue that arises with the enforcement of ICE detainers is that local law enforcement may not—arguably—have the legal authority to continue to hold an individual suspected of an immigration violation. If successfully sued, local law enforcement is responsible for paying damages for the unlawful hold.  

The primary goal of sanctuary policies is to utilize local law enforcement resources to prioritize upholding public safety and community policing goals, and not blur jurisdiction with federal law enforcement officials. 

History of Sanctuary Cities in the U.S.

The U.S. has a long history of sanctuary cities protecting the most vulnerable populations. It can be argued that sanctuary cities in the U.S. date back to the 1850s, when northern states implemented personal liberty laws to combat the federally enacted Fugitive Slave Act, which prohibited local officials from assisting in the capture and return of slaves. 

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration declared the one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing civil war in their countries were “economic migrants,” thereby placing them at risk of deportation. In response, a network of religious institutions, college campuses, and sanctuary cities created the sanctuary movement to protect them. 

San Francisco, for example, enacted a policy which prohibited the “use of City funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law or to gather information regarding the immigration status of individuals in the city and county of San Francisco, unless such assistance is required by federal or state statute, regulation, or court decision.” In March 1985, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington signed an executive order restricting cooperation between city agencies and federal immigration authorities. These policies protected thousands of individuals from being returned to torture, prosecution, and death. 

Are Sanctuary Policies Partisan?

Jurisdictions often implement sanctuary policies in an effort to save money and support public safety by ensuring that all members of a community feel safe interacting with local law enforcement officials. 

Agreements between ICE and local law enforcement agencies to use personnel or to detain individuals for alleged immigration offenses are expensive for jurisdictions. Jurisdictions are responsible for the cost of housing immigrants for an extended period of time, hiring any additional staff for immigration enforcement, and for the cost of the necessary resources and equipment to meet the requirements of the agreement. 

A study by the Brookings Institute on Prince William County, Virginia found that its immigration enforcement policy would cost $6.4 million in the first year of operation, and $26 million over five years. To fund the implementation of the program, the county transferred $793,425 from its contingency fund. Additionally, local jurisdictions are solely responsible for the legal risk these agreements impose. Multiple courts have ruled that holding an immigrant past the point of release so ICE can pick them up is unconstitutional; so when jurisdictions do enforce ICE detainers, it puts them at risk of being sued for unlawful holding. 

These agreements also threaten community safety and can lead to widespread racial profiling by local law enforcement. A study by the University of North Carolina School of Law and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina found that cooperation agreements between ICE and local law enforcement, “…encourages, or at the very least tolerates, racial profiling and baseless stereotyping, resulting in the harassment of citizens and isolation of the Hispanic community.” 

In Maricopa County, Arizona the local law enforcement agency was placed under court supervision due to the systematic racial profiling of Hispanics and immigrants under then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Prince William County, Virginia allocated $3.1 million [almost half of the $6.4 million budget] to install cameras and monitoring footage in the county’s 250 police cars to defend the department against allegations of racial profiling.

It’s worth noting that research does not support the claim that immigrants are more likely to engage in criminal behavior than native-born Americans. A 2018 review which synthesized immigration-crime data over a 20 year period, finds that immigrants are not more likely to commit crimes in the U.S. than natural-born citizens. Additionally, jurisdictions that do adopt agreements with ICE do not target serious offenders. Half of all detainers issued through the cooperation agreement programs were on people who had committed misdemeanors and traffic offenses. 

The term “sanctuary city” is a misnomer for jurisdictions that prioritize enforcing local laws and the economic interest of their communities over enforcement of federal immigration laws.