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The Politics of Sanctuary Cities

| May 20, 2020 | Blog

The things we see and hear, read, or write, affect our emotions. What do you feel when you hear or read the words “sanctuary cities”? Do you feel anger? fear? disgust? hope? relief? acceptance? The term “sanctuary” means a place of refuge or safety. A sanctuary is also the main worship hall of a church, synagogue, or mosque. In the Old Testament, Adonijah, runs into the temple and grabs the horns of the altar. Adonijah begs his half-brother, Solomon, to spare his life. In the middle ages, fugitives fleeing angry mobs would seek refuge in the sanctuaries of churches. Accordingly, English law, from the fourth century to the seventeenth century, specifically granted “sanctuary” to fugitives in certain holy places. That is, English law granted these fugitives immunity from arrest so long as they were within a holy place.

The evolution of the term “sanctuary cities”.

So, first for human beings and later for wildlife and nature, the term “sanctuary” came to be known as a place of refuge and safety. During the renaissance and through modern times, the term “sanctuary” corresponded with the concept of political asylum. This concept aims to give safety and refuge to those fleeing persecution. In the period leading up to the Civil War, the term “sanctuary” describe individuals who offered refuge to runaway slaves in the Fugitive Slave Act.

Later, in the 1980s, there was a sanctuary movement in the United States. This movement aimed to provide refuge to persons fleeing civil wars in Central America. By 1987, under the Reagan administration, nearly 400 U.S. cities had offered a symbolic sanctuary to Central Americans. Today, the Trump Administration labels local governments as “sanctuary cities” if their policies seem too lax with regard to undocumented immigrants. While President Trump did not coin the term, he is largely responsible for the politicizing of the term.

What a city a “sanctuary city”?

What makes a city a “sanctuary city” in current parlance is not well defined. Many people incorrectly assume that sanctuary cities protect dangerous criminals, who pray on innocent U.S. citizens. This assumption gains credence whenever an undocumented immigrant commits a crime, particularly a violent crime, against a U.S. citizen. However, there is no city in the United States that grants undocumented immigrants immunity for their crimes. Likewise, there is no city that prevents the federal government from enforcing the immigration laws of the United States.

There are cities with policies that discourage law enforcement officers to inquire into a victim or witness’s immigration status. These policies aim to promot reporting of criminal activity without fear of deportation. Policies like this build trust between the police and the community they serve, leading to safer communities.

Many people that oppose “sanctuary cities” do not understand that being in the United States unauthorized is not a crime in most cases. This sentence bears repeating. Merely being in the United States without authorization is not a crime. By contrast, being present in the US without authorization is a civil violation, of which the penalty is deportation. Only those individuals previously deported and subsequently re-enter without authorization have committed a crime.

The perception that all undocumented immigrants are criminals merely because they are here without authorization only contributes to an unwarranted fear of immigrants generally. In reality, immigrants regardless of status, are 25% less likely to commit a crime than a native-born U.S. citizen. In Dayton, Ohio, so-called sanctuary city policies have led to a 22% reduction in the rates of serious violent crimes and a 15% reduction in the rates of serious property crimes.

Local law enforcement have different goals than federal immigration enforcement.

Involving local law enforcement in the affairs of U.S. civil law enforcement creates a number of problems. First, in an effort to honor ICE detainers for individuals suspected of immigration violations, several federal courts have found counties to have violated the Fourth Amendment rights of these individuals.

Further, local law enforcement is charged with the responsibility of protecting the public. Honoring ICE detainers only breeds mistrust of the police and discourages immigrants from reporting crimes for fear that in doing so they may be turned into ICE too. Doing anything that creates an environment where crimes go unreported thwarts the goals of local law enforcement. We do not expect our local police officers to enforce federal labor law or securities law. Likewise, we should not expect them to enforce federal immigration law.


So, in thinking about “sanctuary cities”, we need to think about what we want from our local law enforcement. Do we want them to keep us as safe as possible or help ICE with immigration enforcement? The two cannot co-exist. Personally, I prefer the former.

There is no city in the United States that refuses to cooperate with ICE. Every city in the United States, including “sanctuary cities”, allow ICE to come within the city limits to enforce U.S. immigration laws. Furthermore, every locality shares their fingerprint data with ICE, making it possible for ICE officers to do their jobs. So, we should allow local law enforcement to do their job. Likewise, leave immigration enforcement to the federal agencies to handle.

If you are in the United States and need legal help with you immigration case, contact one of our Ohio immigration lawyers for a case evaluation.