May 20, 2024

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There is so much focus in the media and in politics on immigration, both legal and illegal. There’s a term that’s often used in both a positive and negative way which is a sanctuary city. Critics on the right cite the illegality of sanctuary cities, while on the left the sentiment is that sanctuary cities are safer and good in terms of human rights.

Politics aside, what is a sanctuary city and what are the legal considerations involved with the U.S. cities?

“The term sanctuary city is defined by a municipality that may limit its cooperation with the federal government’s efforts to enforce immigration law,” according to Lisa Rough, who writes for

So what does this all mean, and outside of the political debate, what should people know about sanctuary cities?

The History

While the term may get a lot of attention currently, the actual concept of a sanctuary city isn’t necessarily new. It was started in the 1980s as part of pushback when the U.S. federal government wasn’t granting asylum to people who were arriving from specific countries in Central America. Those countries were viewed as politically unstable.

While that might have been when there was the first mainstream recognition of the concept, most will say the history of sanctuary cities goes back much further than that and much beyond the history of the United States.

 The Battle Between Local and Federal Governments

A sanctuary city in many ways represents a clash between local governments and law enforcement officials and the federal government. Of course, this isn’t the only place where this clash exists.

Local police departments in so-called sanctuary cities are essentially saying they’re not necessarily going to handle the business of the federal government when it comes to identifying and arresting undocumented immigrants.

This isn’t the only place where local law enforcement agencies don’t fully enforce federal laws or just doesn’t take on the responsibility. There are a lot of other examples, and sometimes it can be as simple as the fact that the local authorities feel they have more significant priorities to deal with and so they don’t necessarily put it at the top of their list to enforce federal law.

Where Are These Cities?

There are an estimated 60 sanctuary cities in the U.S., and the most well-known are the largest cities of New York, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Even in these cities, there are usually guidelines in place for how federal immigration authorities are alerted if someone is let’s say arrested and they are an undocumented immigrant. It may be that there are more stringent reporting guidelines in place if someone is arrested and they have a fairly long arrest record, but it’s all varied between cities.

Even though the federal authorities may be alerted if it’s warranted an undocumented immigrant may be released by the local authorities.

Overall, San Francisco has one of the most defined sanctuary city policies, and in 1989 the city passed something called the City of Refuge order, prohibiting the use of funds from the city to enforce federal immigration laws or share information with federal immigration officials.

So, while the term is used loosely and as a blanket for any city where immigration isn’t strictly dealt with by local authorities, there isn’t one well-defined categorization of what a sanctuary city is, at least regarding the law.