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What Is a Sanctuary City?

With Sanctuary City's a hot topic in the news, many are left wondering, exactly what is a sanctuary city? While there is no legal definition of a “Sanctuary City,” the term typically refers to the resistance by local governments to aid federal enforcement of an unpopular policy - which in current events, refers to federal immigration policy.

Democratic states, such as California, have created Sanctuary City laws as a way to protect immigrants and local business owners from what state government officials assert are discriminatory federal immigration policies.

The Trump Administration, in turn, claims that these Sanctuary Laws are protecting criminals who should be deported and are obstructing federal law.

The Trump Administration, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has gone so far as to sue the state of California over these "Sanctuary City" laws. The Administration alleges that California overstepped its authority in passing these laws and hopes to have them struck down by the Supreme Court.

What are Sanctuary Laws?

The Sanctuary City laws of California include three statutes which, among other things:
  • Limit the cooperation of private employers and local jurisdictions with federal immigration-enforcement agents.
  • Require California employers to obtain warrants or subpoenas from immigration agents before giving access to certain business or confidential employment records.
  • Threaten fines of up to $10,000 for business owners who violate the above clause.
  • Restrict local officials from voluntarily providing information about when a suspected undocumented inmate will be released from custody.
  • Prohibit the transfer of a person to federal custody without a judicial warrant.
  • Bar the federal government from using local jail space for immigrants being held on civil immigration violations.

Blocking Funding

The Trump Administration, in response to the Sanctuary City laws, has also blocked funding of federal grants for states that don't comply with federal immigration policies.

The Administration changed the eligibility for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants, or JAG grants, to include three criteria - 1) cities must give the federal government 48-hours notice before releasing anyone ICE wants to remain detained; 2) cities must give Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents access to detention facilities; and 3) state and local officials must provide personal information and release dates of undocumented immigrants detained across the state.

California's Sanctuary City laws specifically prevent officials from providing that information to the federal government.

Last year, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that blocking the JAG grants based on the above criteria is unconstitutional, and issued a permanent, nationwide injunction blocking it from being enforced. Concurrently, a federal judge in Chicago issued a preliminary nationwide injunction blocking the Justice Department from requiring city officials to give federal agents access to detention facilities.

The Chicago judge also barred the Department of Justice from requiring local officials to provide advance notice before releasing undocumented immigrants from custody.

Since that time, however, a federal judge in Northern California has decided to allow the federal government to withhold the JAG grants to Sanctuary Cities and states.

Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the action on the part of the federal government was not important enough to warrant an injunction.

“The injury threatened is not irreparable,” Orrick wrote. “The amount of money at stake is small compared to the state’s budget. Payment is delayed, for the moment. The DOJ appears to be using its regular administrative process to decide whether it will follow its initial inclinations.”

Orrick said at some point in the future, the case “may help define the contours of the state’s broad constitutional police powers under the Tenth Amendment and the federal government’s ‘broad, undoubted power over the subject of immigration and the status of aliens.’”

With the policies on legal immigration changing so rapidly, these interpretations by the federal courts may prove to be essential in defining the future of the immigration laws in the United States. If you have any questions or would like help with your immigration status during these confusing times, please contact us and we will be happy to help you.