Sanctuary Cities

What exactly is a “Sanctuary City”? Why are they all over the news now? How do they affect the political and economic climate in the United States? These are all common questions being asked by people due to the immigration debate coming into the forefront of American politics for the first time since the 1980s.

The History behind Sanctuary Cities

Although there is not “official” definition of sanctuary city, it is generally agreed to be a city that does not always enforce federal immigration law, but the extent and policies differ from place to place. The Podcast 99% Invisible has an amazing, informative two part episode covering the history of Sanctuary Cities in and out of the US and the reasons it gained traction – definitely go listen!

The United State’s Sanctuary City movement started with harboring fugitive slaves back in the 1800s. During this time and before, it was a common practice for places of worship to take in and protect people facing prosecution. This practice can be traced back to Greek and Roman times and continued on through the development of nation states in Europe. In the United States, harboring runaway slaves was met with such distain by Southern slave holders, they developed and continuously pressured the US government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act (nicknamed the BloodHound Law) required all slaves who escaped and were captured to be returned to their masters in the South. It also required officials and citizens of free states to cooperate with this law, on a federal level. Slaves, like immigrants and refugees, were considered to be under “federal interest”, meaning no state could pass and enforce legislation that contradicted national policy.

The modern movement started in the 1980’s when churches began to take in immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador who were attempting to escape persecution in their home countries due to the political climate. Most people who seek to come to the US for this reason are considered refugees seeking political asylum. A refugee is defined as one that flees; especially:  a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution. Political asylum is the right to live in a foreign country and is given by the government of that country to people who have to leave their own country for political reasons. People seeking to establish political asylum need prove they fear persecution in their home country based on race, nationality, political opinion or social group. They also have to convince immigration that their government is involved in their persecution or has control over the groups that are. Because there is very rarely physical evidence, most of the proceedings depend on individuals stories and context the US government has about the political state in their home country.

The big issue with immigrants coming to the US from El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s were that both countries were engaged in a civil war and the US considered these two countries political allies. Because of this alliance, the US would not accept that the governments in these countries were persecuting their citizens and instead classified them as “economic migrants”. An economic migrant is a person who leaves their home country to live in another country with better working or living conditions. Because most of these people were considered economic migrants, they did not qualify to stay in the US and were deported back to their home countries where they faced danger.

Current Climate of Sanctuary Cities and Policies

The national debate over whether or not cities could be sanctuary cities resurfaced when an undocumented immigrant with a long criminal history allegedly shot and killed a 32-year-old woman, Kate Steinle, in 2015. Her death lead to the proposal of Katie’s Law – the bill would give a mandatory five years in prison to violent, deported illegal immigrants who reenter the U.S. This what a hot topic of the presidential campaign of 2016, with all candidates taking a stance.

Donald Trump introduced an executive order that changed immigration policies and outlined repercussions for sanctuary cities whom refused to comply with the order. One of which is the possibility for cutting off federal funding for grants in the future to cities that do not comply with federal law. According to Reuters, ten of the US sanctuary cities could face up to $2.27 billion in the cuts outline in Trump’s policy. The order states, “Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States. These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

According to an article by the New York Times, currently there are 5 states and 633 counties with policies that limit how much the local police can cooperate with federal immigration agents.

US Sanctuary City States – New York Times
US Sanctuary City Counties – New York Times

Many cities came out against the order and its attempt to limit sanctuary cities. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf stated, “We’ll proudly stand as a sanctuary city — protecting our residents from what we deem unjust federal immigration laws — fight all forms of bigotry and advance our commitment to equity even more passionately”. San Fransisco Mayor Ed Lee joined with “We are a sanctuary city now, tomorrow, forever.” Not all cities are eager to support immigrants in the same ways as Sanctuary Cities are, many states have introduced “anti-sanctuary city” legislation this year.

The Bills.

Below is a map of all of the bills having to do with sanctuary cities currently proposed.

Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Act (US HR83) will block federal funding to any state or local government for a minimum of one year, and “directs the attorney general to compile an annual list of such cities and issue a report on any particular state or locality upon request from a member of Congress,” as stated in the a press release from the bill’s sponsor, Lou Barletta. Conversely, The Protect Our Sanctuary Cities Act (US HR1076), was proposed. This bill aims to end Trump’s executive restrictions on sanctuary cities and prohibit the ability to use federal funds to enforce such provisions.
CA SB54 aims to prohibit police officers and jailers from arresting or detaining people solely for immigration violations unless a judge issues a warrant.

IN SB0423 defines “sanctuary policy” and prohibits a postsecondary educational institution from establishing a sanctuary policy. MS SB2710 would prohibit local governments and public universities from passing policies to allow sanctuary cities or deviate from federal immigration laws.

FL S0786 not only seeks to ban “sanctuary policies”, but also create fines and penalties for law enforcement, state agencies or local governments agencies that use these policies and don’t comply with federal immigration law. ID H0076 would have removed state sales tax distributions from any city or county that declined to comply with federal immigration laws was said to be designed “to keep locals and counties from protesting in a way that would be counter-productive to a solution to immigration reform as a whole at the national level” according to the sponsor, Greg Chaney.

CO HB1134 introduced a bill that would have prohibited local governments from adopting any policy or taking any action that barred an elected official, employee, or law enforcement officer from communicating or cooperating with federal immigration enforcement officers. The legislation would also have allowed victims of certain crimes committed by people in the country illegally to sue politicians who refused to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. Although this bill died, Pennsylvania and Texas just passed similar legislation.

One very interesting bill I found while searching for sanctuary city bills was MO HB989. This bill would prohibit certain political subdivisions from establishing themselves as sanctuaries for abortions. This seems like a precursor to a movement not yet started, possibly cities around the states declaring themselves as “sanctuaries” from rights we currently have? It’s a little terrifying to me.


When it comes to sanctuary cities and sanctuary policies, I’m a little divided. With cases like the people from Guatemala and El Salvador, I can’t imagine sending people back to their death. Fast forward 37 years and we could be doing this to people who were instrumental in the war in the middle east for the United States. I don’t believe disregarding federal law is necessarily appropriate, but when you’re talking about having people’s lives literally in your hands, how could you sent them to their death because of an executive order?

I wanted to end this blog with a song by my friend, its a cover of the song ‘Sanctuary’ from the show Nashville. It seems like a beautiful way to end an issue that doesn’t make me feel the best inside.


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Photography enthusiast, creative ambitions, always smile.

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