They’re scattered across the country, from Los Angeles, California to Providence, Rhode Island. They’re in the Northeast, the Southwest, and the deep South. And, while they’re known as sanctuary cities, they include counties and states as well. Sanctuary cities have been the subject of both praise and condemnation, but many still don’t know what they are and what sort of sanctuary these jurisdictions provide.
First, a definition: a sanctuary city is a municipality (or state) that has decided not to cooperate with certain immigration enforcement actions (such as arrests and deportations). It doesn’t mean that immigrants are not subject to any legal proceedings, but that they are not in danger of being deported if they do come into contact with the legal system for reasons that would not ordinarily result in deportation. For instance, if someone is detained or arrested for vagrancy, sanctuary cities promise that their police officers will not perform a check on that person’s immigration status.
A sanctuary city may be defined by what it does for immigrants as well as by what it refrains from doing. For example, some cities (like Los Angeles) maintain funds to help immigrants pay for legal representation. Other sanctuary jurisdictions (including California, Maryland and Utah) allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. This measure means that undocumented immigrants who are pulled over by police officers for traffic violations will not be subject to additional penalties (and detention or deportation) for driving without a license.
Some of the controversy over sanctuary cities stems from the question of whether these cities are simply not going out of their way to help the federal government in its immigration enforcement efforts, or whether they are actively hindering it. Critics of sanctuary cities argue that these jurisdictions are in violation of federal law: 8 U.S.C. § 1373 forbids local and state governments and agencies from enacting laws or policies that limit sharing “information regarding the immigration or citizenship status” of individuals with the federal government. Supporters – including some police chiefs – assert that sanctuary cities actually help to build trust between police and the communities they serve, while enforcing immigration laws on behalf of the federal government distracts them from more pressing (and dangerous) issues in their local communities. Given the continued debate about immigration protection and enforcement, this debate is unlikely to be resolved any time soon; however; the number of sanctuary cities and the types of protections they provide may continue to grow.