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Are Sanctuary Cities Illegal?

The current administration's fight against sanctuary policies

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  • Current federal law requires states to "notify" federal authorities when they have detained or arrested an individual in the country illegally. [ProPublica]
  • The word "notify" is vaguely defined under the law.
  • Sanctuary cities legally comply in notifying federal authorities through databases, but may not follow desired federal policies in helping locate, detain and deport individuals. [Vox]
  • California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Illinois, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Mexico declared themselves sanctuary states. [The Los Angeles Times], [Center for Immigration Studies]
  • Iowa, Tennesse, and North Carolina passed "anti-sanctuary" laws that require cities to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. [The Pew Charitable Trusts], [The Associated Press]

  • Using the term "sanctuary" does not imply that cities are harboring dangerous fugitives. [Teaching Tolerance] At least four peer-reviewed studies have disproven these claims of danger, often citing American citizens are more dangerous. Dive deeper here.



CIVICS: Federal support for the states often comes in the form of money - federal funds provided to the state directly benefit the citizens in that state. Cutting funding, or not providing money, to the state negatively impacts the citizens in the state.


President Trump's executive order sparked debate on the states' rights, and if states should be punished for not following a federal policy.


SOCIAL: Some feel sanctuary cities are protecting human rights, while others feel the policy rewards those who break the law. 



Supporters argue sanctuary cities follow the law.


Local police are required to "notify" federal authorities when an illegal immigrant is in custody. States comply through the submission of fingerprints to local databases, which is automatically submitted to the FBI and then to ICE. [ProPublica]


Law does not require these states, cities, and towns to give local resources (money, police, information, etc) to federal efforts. [Teaching Tolerance




Supports of sanctuary cities point to the 10th Amendment, which defines and protects states’ rights. [The Denver Post]


Supreme Court precedent: Supporters also cite South Dakota v. Dole, where the Supreme Court ruled that money for the states cannot be withheld by the federal government if the reason for withholding relates to the federal interest in the issue. 



Doesn't make sense

Congress passed legislation in 2015 to prevent cities from receiving federal grants directly related to immigration. Therefore, states already receive no federal funds directed towards immigration. [The Washington Post]


Supporters then argue that the Trump administration cutting funding to these cities is unlawful political retaliation.



Thoughtful release 

Sanctuary cities or states do not allow dangerous individuals onto the streets. [The Los Angeles Times]


Conflict in law

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated sanctuary states and cities are "actively obstructing federal law enforcement" or the efforts of ICE. [Vox]


The Department of Justice continues to explore ways to criminally prosecute state and local authorities on the issue.



Federal issues

Supporters of defunding cite Arizona v. United States (2012), which ruled “the removal process is to the discretion of the Federal Government because it touches on foreign relations and must be made with one voice.”




President Trump stated, "Thousands of dangerous and violent criminal aliens are released as a result of sanctuary policies, set free to prey on innocent Americans." [The Los Angeles Times]


Opponents of sanctuary cities believe the city or state is providing too much safety to criminals. One related case in California involved an illegal immigrant who was in and out of local jails. He eventually killed a local San Jose woman. [The San Fransisco Chronicle]


Opponents believe if individuals have broken the law to enter the country, they should not be welcome in the country.


  • Jan. 2017: President Trump signed an executive order that cut federal funding to "sanctuary jurisdictions" including cities. [The White House
  • Aug. 2018: After months of legal debate, a federal appeals court ruled President Trump's executive order to defund sanctuary cities as unconstitutional. [USA Today]
  • Apr. 2019: Under the direction of the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security is releasing detained immigrants into targeted areas within sanctuary cities and states. [The Washington Post]
  • Feb. 2020: The Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed new lawsuits against California, New Jersey, and a county in Washington. Attorney General William Bar called the move “a significant escalation in the federal government’s efforts to confront the resistance of sanctuary cities.” [Axios]
  • Jun. 2020: The Supreme Court refused to hear arguments against the California sanctuary laws. The decision upholds a lower court ruling, that law enforcement officials are prohibited from aiding federal agents in taking custody of immigrants. [The Los Angeles Times]


  • There’s no legal definition of sanctuary cities. In their pursuit to defund, how will the government define which cities qualify as sanctuaries?

  • Will defunding these cities reduce funding for police forces who keep cities and citizens safe?

  • Cities like Chicago have different laws regarding reporting illegal immigrants to the federal government. [Vox] Will other cities adopt similar policies?

  • Here is a historical timeline of immigration in the U.S.

  • Does using the word "illegal" vs. "undocumented" make a difference? Why or why not?

  • Is this a true debate on state rights vs. federal rights? Why or why not?

  • Many are believe this presidential direction to be politically motivated. Read one analyst's opinion here.

Key Vocabulary