Stopping "Sanctuary Cities" Proved Easier Said Than Done

Update (7/5/2018) 

On July 5th, a federal judge ruled against the Trump administration's attempt to block California's so-called Sanctuary law. 

In a ruling issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez wrote California's sanctuary law, SB 54, does not impede federal enforcement of immigration law.  

The judge acknowledged the case "presents unique and novel constitutional issues" by forcing the court to "answer the complicated question of where the United States’ enumerated power over immigration ends and California’s reserved police power begins."

Another state law requiring the California Attorney General tour and inspect detention facilities was challenged by the Trump administration but was legally upheld by Mendez, who acknowledged the law didn't really do much in terms of requirements of the centers.  

"For all its bark, the law has no real bite," wrote Mendez.

To read the ruling, click here


The Trump administration has been battling in the courts and on the streets against jurisdictions that call themselves "sanctuaries," arguing that they threaten the rule of law and allow criminal immigrants to roam free.

Officials in those states, counties and cities counter that public safety benefits from their decision to largely separate local policing from the federal government's immigration law enforcement, especially amid the current aggressive deportation policy. Many local law enforcement leaders maintain that collaborating with immigration authorities diminishes the trust of the community in the police and makes their job harder.

Both sides of the sanctuary issue have scored at least temporary victories in a long-running conflict that remains unresolved.

The sanctuary movement began in the early 1980s as a reaction to hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence and civil war and seeking asylum in the United States. The Reagan Administration made it very difficult for refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala to gain asylum, deeming them “economic migrants” rather than victims of persecution, a requirement for gaining asylum. That roadblock didn’t stop the influx of Central Americans crossing the Mexico-U.S. border.  A network of churches and ministries created a sort of “underground railroad” to provide a safe haven to those refugees.

Watch SoCal Connected's explainer on sanctuary cities.

Most if not all of the "sanctuaries" are limiting cooperation of local law enforcement with immigration authorities, except for the most serious criminal cases. For example:

  • Not inquiring about the immigration status of people they arrest.
  • Declining to tell the federal authorities the date an immigrant is being released from the local jail after serving time for a minor offense.
  • Not participating in joint enforcement efforts unless directed at major crime rings.  
  • Not allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers inside their jails and/or not keeping immigrants in jail more than 48 hours after receiving a federal request (called an “ICE hold” or “detainer”) to hold that person.

Several federal court rulings have held that local jurisdictions can’t legally or properly  keep prisoners beyond their release dates. Courts have said enforcement of immigration laws is a federal matter and that cooperation by local governments is voluntary and subject to specific agreements. But sanctuary jurisdictions cannot prevent the federal government from knowing that they have detained an immigrant. Federal law mandates submitting fingerprints to a federal database when someone is booked at the local level.

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Sanctuaries also can’t stop ICE from doing its job, conducting raids or otherwise enforcing federal laws inside their jurisdictions.

Gov. Jerry Brown, in signing a sanctuary law called the California Values Act in October 2017, said the new law "does not prevent or prohibit ICE or the Department of Homeland Security from doing their own work in any way." He described the law as striking a balance "that will protect public safety, while bringing a measure of comfort to those families who are now living in fear every day."

The law provoked a backlash from opponents and a lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department. Anti-sanctuary organizers say at least 12 counties and 42 cities have passed resolutions opposing or resisting the 2017 law or joining the federal lawsuit.

The Trump administration is not just putting pressure on the sanctuary movement in court. Federal authorities also have conducted major sweeps and raids in those jurisdictions. One June 14, ICE announced that it had taken custody of 162 foreigners who were "released back into the community after detainers filed by ICE with local law enforcement officials were ignored."

Although local authorities were not obligated to obey the ICE detainers, they were being depicted publicly as soft on crime. The release mentioned four people with previous convictions for serious crimes that had been released when they finished their sentence, but many others apparently were mainly "illegal re-entrants" and immigration fugitives.  

Trump has promised to take away billions in federal dollars from sanctuary jurisdictions, leading to more court battles.

"Block funding for sanctuary cities ... no more funding. We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths," Trump said in September 2016 during a major immigration speech in Phoenix. "Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars, and we will work with Congress to pass legislation to protect those jurisdictions that do assist federal authorities."

In April, Chicago won a legal victory against the administration after arguing it couldn’t be denied grant money just because of the city’s sanctuary status. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and upheld a nationwide ban on the withholding of funds. The Justice Department filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court, asking the ban be limited to Chicago, and in June the 7th Circuit agreed to temporarily lift the nationwide ban pending further review.

In a separate case in March, the attorney general filed a lawsuit against California, claiming the state is obstructing enforcement of federal immigration law. Several cities and counties within the state have declared support for the federal lawsuit.


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