Sanctuary Cities: Top 3 Pros and Cons

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While there is no official legal definition of “sanctuary city,” the term generally refers to towns, cities, or counties that decline to cooperate completely with federal detention requests related to undocumented immigrants, often with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. [2] Some argue that sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, New York, and Chicago should not receive federal funding because they are not enforcing federal immigration laws. Others say that sanctuary city policies protect both citizens and undocumented immigrants.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA, a sanctuary city
Source: Unsplash, “Golden Gate Bridge,” pixabay, Mar. 31, 2015

There are 11 states, 37 cites, and 134 counties listed as sanctuary jurisdictions by the Center for Immigration Studies as of Mar. 23, 2020. [23]

Florida banned sanctuary cities on June 14, 2019, joining at least 11 other states with similar rules, according to CNN. [21] Representatives in other states have since pushed for sanctuary cities bans, including New Hampshire, Georgia, and Oklahoma. [24] [25] [26]

Sanctuary cities grew from the Sanctuary Movement the late 1980s and early 1990s in which religious congregations began helping undocumented Salvadorian and Guatemalan families settle in the United States. They acted in direct defiance of US immigration authorities, who denied over 90% of asylum requests by immigrants fleeing violence in El Salvador and Guatemala. [1][2] The sanctuary activists believed that the federal government was breaking international and domestic refugee law. [1]

Los Angeles was the first city to enact sanctuary policies, with a focus on undocumented immigrants already in the United States. [29] The chief of police enacted Special Order No. 40 on Nov. 27, 1979, stating that police officers should not inquire about immigration status and should provide city services to everyone equally. [12] San Francisco followed suit, passing the “City of Refuge” resolution in 1985 and “City of Refuge” ordinance in 1989, requiring that all city employees stop immigration policing and provide city services to all residents regardless of immigration status. [2]

Should Sanctuary Cities Receive Federal Funding?

Pro 1

Sanctuary cities encourage better relationships between undocumented immigrants and law enforcement.

Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones says undocumented immigrant cooperation with police is statistically proven to make sanctuary cities safer. [15] Murder rates in San Francisco, one of the oldest sanctuary cities, were at their lowest in 2014 (with 45 murders) since the 1989 “City of Refuge” ordinance was enacted. [15] San Francisco’s murder rate is lower than comparable non-sanctuary cities, with 5.75 murders per 100,000 residents in 2013 compared to 11.39 in Dallas and 15.17 in Indianapolis. [15]

70% of undocumented immigrants are less likely to report being the victim of a crime, and 45% of Latinos are less likely report crimes or voluntarily offer information about a crime for fear police officers would about their immigration status. [15] [16] The fear of being asked about immigration status also makes people less likely to cooperate with investigations. [19]

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Pro 2

Sanctuary policies are legal and protected by the Tenth Amendment.

The Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution provides for the separation of federal and state powers. According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the Amendment prevents the “federal government from coercing state or local governments to use their resources to enforce a federal regulatory program, like immigration,” and, thus, Congress cannot compel state or local governments to collect immigration status information in order to share it with the federal government. [4][7] Because the data are never collected due to “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies, the local and state governments are not in violation of federal law. [4]

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Pro 3

Sanctuary cities protect undocumented immigrants against federal immigration laws.

Many people believe that the federal immigration deportation policies are unjust because they target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately, deport people who have lived in the United States since childhood, deport people who have committed no crimes, separate families, and cause people to live in constant fear of deportation and its devastating consequences. Libby Schaaf, Mayor of Oakland, CA, said, “I like to compare this to conscientious objector status. We are not going to use our resources to enforce what we believe are unjust immigration laws.” [11]

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Con 1

Sanctuary cities harbor criminals, creating a dangerous environment for US citizens.

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant, had seven felony convictions in the United States and had been deported from the country five times. Yet, the city of San Francisco declined to detain him for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials (ICE) officials and released him into the community. In July 2015, Lopez-Sanchez was charged with murdering Katie Steinle in San Francisco. [8][9]

Of 8,145 undocumented immigrants released from detention requests between Jan. 1, 2014 and Aug. 31, 2014, 5,132 (63%) had previous criminal convictions or were marked a public safety concern; 2,984 (36.6%) had felony charges or convictions; 1,909 (23.4%) had misdemeanor convictions or charges related to violence, assault, sexual abuse, weapons, or drug distribution; and 239 (2.9%) had three or more misdemeanor convictions. [18]

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Con 2

Sanctuary policies defy federal laws to which state and local governments are bound.

8 U.S. Code § 1373 states that “a Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.” [5] The Department of Justice requires that most recipients of federal grant money certify their compliance with all federal laws. [4][6] Sanctuary cities, by not asking about, recording, and submitting to the federal government the immigration statuses of residents, are violating federal law and the rules for getting federal grant money.

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Con 3

Sanctuary policies prevent local and state police officers from doing their jobs.

Sanctuary policies prevent police from investigating, questioning, and arresting people who have broken federal immigration law. Many crimes, violent and otherwise, could be prevented if local law enforcement in sanctuary cities could arrest undocumented immigrants for their first crime on US soil—illegal entry into the country—and turn them over to federal law enforcement. [14] According to Heather Mac Donald, JD, Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, many Salvadorian gang members living in Los Angeles entered the United States illegally, but because of sanctuary policies, LA police officers cannot arrest the undocumented immigrants for illegal entry. Instead, law enforcement has to wait for a second crime to be committed to get the criminals off the street. [14]

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Trump Administration Policy on Sanctuary Jurisdictions

On Feb. 26, 2020, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Department of Justice (DOJ) could withhold funding from sanctuary jurisdictions. The ruling followed three other federal appeals court rulings stating that the Trump administration could not withhold federal funds from sanctuary jurisdictions. President Trump tweeted on Mar. 5, 2020, “As per Federal Court, ruling, the Federal Government will be withholding funds from Sanctuary Cities. They should change their status and go non-Sanctuary. Do not protect criminals!” [22]

In an Apr. 29, 2020 press conference, Trump stated that he didn’t think states and cities with sanctuary policies should receive federal aid for COVID-19 (coronavirus): “[W]e shouldn’t have to pay anything anyway because all they do is make it very hard for law enforcement… I don’t see helping cities and states if they’re going to be sanctuary. Because all sanctuary means to me is it’s protecting a lot of criminals.” [27]

On Apr. 30, 2020, a 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Trump administration’s policy of withholding federal grants for law enforcement from cities with sanctuary policies. Since it stands in contradiction with a different appeals court, this ruling may lead to the issue being brought to the Supreme Court. [28]

On June 15, 2020, the US Supreme Court declined to hear the Trump administration’s appeal challenging California’s sanctuary policy. The refusal leaves in place a 9th Circuit Ruling that upheld the state’s policy.

New York City, a sanctuary city
Source: Ivan2010, “Manhattan, New York City,”, Aug. 14, 2015

Discussion Questions – Things to Think About


  1. How would you summarize the reasons why cities or states might decline to cooperate with the federal government on detention requests? What other solutions can you think of to address their concerns?
  2. Should the federal government be allowed to withhold funding based on any reasons it decides? Why or why not?
  3. Which side do you find most compelling? List three specific pieces of supporting evidence from the article (or from additional research) that support your view.

  1. Peter Mancina, “In the Spirit of Sanctuary: Sanctuary-City Policy Advocacy and the Production of Sanctuary-Power in San Francisco, California,”, Aug. 2016
  2. Matthew Green and Jessica Carlton, “What Are Sanctuary Cities and How Are They Bracing for Trump’s Proposed Immigration Crackdown?,”, Nov. 17, 2016
  3. Jasmine C. Lee, Rudy Omri, and Julia Preston, “What Are Sanctuary Cities?,”, Sep. 3, 2016
  4. Immigrant Legal Resource Center, “FAQ on Federal Grant Conditions and Cooperation with Immigration Enforcement,”, July 2016
  5. Legal Information Institute, “U.S. Code, Title 8, Chapter 12, Subchapter II, Part IX, § 1373,” (accessed Nov. 25, 2016)
  6. Bureau of Justice Assistance, “Office of Justice Programs Guidance Regarding Compliance with 8 U.S.C. § 1373,” (accessed Nov. 25, 2016)
  7. Michael John Garcia, “‘Sanctuary Cities’: Legal Issues,”, Jan. 15, 2009
  8. Christina Littlefield, “Sanctuary Cities: How Kathryn Steinle’s Death Intensified the Immigration Debate,”, July 24, 2015
  9. Lee Romney, Cindy Chang, and Joel Rubin, “Fatal Shooting of S.F. Woman Reveals Disconnect between ICE, Local Police; 5-Time Deportee Charged,”, July 6, 2015
  10. Janie Har and Amy Taxin, “San Francisco’s Status as ‘Sanctuary’ Criticized after Slaying,”, July 7, 2015
  11. Jennifer Medina and Jess Bidgood, “Cities Vow to Fight Trump on Immigration, Even If They Lose Millions,”, Nov. 28, 2016
  12. Daryl F. Gates, “Special Order No. 40,”, Nov. 27, 1979
  13. Jessica Vaughan, “Sanctuary Cities Continue to Obstruct Enforcement, Threaten Public Safety,”, Aug. 31, 2016
  14. Heather Mac Donald, “The Illegal-Alien Crime Wave,”, Winter 2004
  15. Josh Harkinson, “Actually, Sanctuary Cities Are Safer,”, July 10, 2015
  16. Nik Theodore, “Insecure Communities: Latino Perceptions of Police Involvement in Immigration Enforcement,”, May 2013
  17. Bettina Boxall, “Violent Crime in California Rose 10% in 2015, State Attorney General Says,”, July 1, 2016
  18. Jessica Vaughan, “Ignoring Detainers, Endangering Communities,”, July 2015
  19. Zoe Lofgren, “Sanctuary Cities Keep Communities Safe,”, July 28, 2015
  20. Bryan Griffith and Jessica M. Vaughan, “Maps: Sanctuary Cities, Counties, and States,”, Apr. 16, 2019
  21. Catherine E. Shoichet, “Florida Just Banned Sanctuary Cities. At Least 11 Other States Have, Too,”, June 14, 2019
  22. Brett Samuels, “Trump: Government Will Start Withholding Funds from Sanctuary Cities after Court Ruling,”, Mar. 5, 2020
  23. Bryan Griffith and Jessica M. Vaughan, “Map: Sanctuary Cities, Counties, and States,”, Mar. 23, 2020
  24. Max Sullivan, “NH Rep. Wants to Ban Sanctuary Cities. He Put the Question on WHS School Ballot, “, Feb. 13, 2020
  25. KJRH News, “Bill Filed to Ban Sanctuary Cities in Oklahoma,”, Jan. 15, 2020
  26. Joshua Nelson, “Georgia Republicans Push Bill to Ban Sanctuary Cities: The President Is 100% Right,”, Feb. 25, 2020
  27. White House, “Remarks by President Trump and Vice President Pence in Roundtable with Industry Executives on the Plan for Opening Up America Again,”, Apr. 29, 2020
  28. Tobias Hoonhout, “Federal Appeals Court Rules Against Trump Admin. Move to Block Funding from Sanctuary Cities,”, May 1, 2020
  29. H.B.C., “What Are Sanctuary Cities?,”, Nov. 22, 2016
  30. Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Won’t Hear Case on California Sanctuary Law,”, June 15, 2020



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