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What is a Sanctuary City?

You may have heard the term “sanctuary city” in the news lately and you may be wondering how it plays into the immigration debate in the United States. Is this something that could help you or a family member? Should you consider going to a sanctuary city? What sort of protections do sanctuary cities provide and how might this change under the administration of President Trump?

We hear questions like these from many of our clients. We’ve put together this guide on sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants to answer your questions and help inform you of your options. Keep in mind that immigration laws and policies remain in flux, with politics playing a large role in how they will shake out going forward.

While you should read up on sanctuary cities, you should also consult with an attorney to ensure you have the most current and helpful information.

What Is a Sanctuary City?

Sanctuary cities are places in the United States that have decided to limit cooperation with or resist entirely attempts at federal immigration enforcement. This means requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain people go unanswered. Some cities adopt formal laws codifying this resistance. Others keep their decision informal.

When law enforcement deals with someone who is in the country illegally, they can be arrested and flagged for eventual deportation. Imagine the horror of getting stopped for a simple traffic violation and suddenly being scared you will never see your family again.

The Center for Immigration Studies has estimated 300 cities have offered sanctuary to illegal immigrants.

How Did Sanctuary Cities Come About?

Churches began offering those fleeing bloody conflicts in Central America sanctuary after the U.S. government refused to grant them refugee status. In time, cities adopted the idea to protect what they saw as their most vulnerable citizens.

While sanctuary cities have gotten more attention in the past two years with the immigration debate ramping up during Trump’s campaign for president and installation in the White House, the concept actually dates back three decades to the 1980s.

Why Provide Sanctuary for Illegal Immigrants?

Many people wonder what the benefit for cities is in providing sanctuary status to illegal residents. There are several impetuses for this, one of which is a legal argument. Some cities believe the Constitution does not compel the local police force to help the federal government enforce immigration law. Other reasons include:

  • Fighting crime: Sanctuary cities believe undocumented residents will be more likely to report crimes if they know they can do so without facing deportation. This increases public safety for all.
  • Encouraging kids’ enrollment in school: If parents worry they will be arrested upon entering their children in school, they may instead choose to keep the youngsters home with them.
  • Using social services: Cities want their citizens to stay physically and mentally healthy. Undocumented immigrants may not use these services if they fear being arrested.

Where Are the Biggest Sanctuary Cities?

Some of the nation’s largest cities are sanctuary cities. The two biggest by population, New York City and Los Angeles, both refuse to cooperate with ICE in turning over undocumented immigrants, saying immigration violations are a matter of civil, not criminal, law.  This is in fact true and correct.

Other prominent U.S. sanctuary cities include:

  • Washington, D.C.
  • Philadelphia
  • Chicago
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Newark, New Jersey
  • Baltimore
  • Boston
  • New Orleans

A number of counties have established similar policies, including many in Oregon and Washington. And four states have become sanctuary states, refusing to hand over undocumented individuals to the federal government. They are:

  • Colorado
  • California
  • New Mexico
  • Connecticut

What Are Sanctuary Cities in Texas?

There are currently no Texas sanctuary cities, according to the Center for Immigrant Studies, which keeps a running list. There are, however, two counties that limit cooperation with federal immigration officials in Texas: Dallas and Travis counties.

Sanctuary cities have become a political hot potato in Texas. The state banned sanctuary cities in May 2017, a move many critics say is evidence of anti-Hispanic bias. A federal court temporarily issued an injunction in August 2017, but the law will likely remain tied up in court for a long time to come.

The leaders of Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas have all voiced opposition to the ban. They say it will make many undocumented residents scared to report crime to the police and encourages racial profiling by law enforcement.

Sanctuary Cities Under Donald Trump

Texas is hardly the only state grappling with the constitutionality of sanctuary cities. President Trump made immigration reform a plank of his presidential campaign. When he became president, one of his earliest moves was to sign an executive order stripping sanctuary cities of eligibility for federal grants.

Can Trump convince cities to cooperate? Perhaps not. Shortly after Trump’s announcement of the defunding, mayors of several sanctuary cities, including Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, said they would not budge on their immigration position. Many cities are fighting the order in court by arguing the federal government does not have the authority to force cities to turn over illegal immigrants.

Trump has made a number of changes to immigration policies during his short time in office, including a ban on citizens from certain countries entering the nation and the suspension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Whether the squeeze on sanctuary cities by cutting their funds will result in any changes to city policies remains to be seen.

Can Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Help You and Your Family?

In Texas, the status of sanctuary cities could be up in the air for some time as the state’s ban winds its way through court. In the meantime, residents of Texas in sanctuary counties may find their immigration status questioned less than it would be if the new law takes effect.  The new law would allow police to question one’s immigration status during even the most routine traffic stops.

The legality of sanctuary cities and the fight over their continued existence will likely continue for years to come. Make sure you understand how this can impact your immigration status and what your rights are as an undocumented worker. You can contact Morales & Sparks for answers to these and other questions you may have about immigration.

Updated on September 20, 2017

Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is to provide general information and is not to be constituted as legal advice. If you need help with a specific issue, please seek the advice of an attorney.