The concept of “sanctuary cities” arose in the 1980s as a form of protest against federal immigration policies in the United States that barred refugees seeking asylum from El Salvador and Guatemala. San Francisco was the first city to pass such legislation, that specifically forbids city police officers from assisting federal immigration officers. Over three decades later, there are more than three hundred jurisdictions around the country that have declared themselves as sanctuaries and will refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Since President Donald Trump first launched his campaign for the presidency, he has continuously hammered anti-immigration rhetoric into his speeches and supported fear-based immigration policies, from building a wall to demanding greater crackdowns on undocumented immigrants. The Trump administration has attempted to close the southern border to people from Central America seeking asylum multiple times, going even as far as firing tear gas at a group of asylum seekers in San Ysidro last November.
Undocumented immigrants are being deported faster than ever, with arrests by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) surging to 40 percent. In January 2017, Trump signed an executive order designed to triple the number of officers available for immigration enforcement purposes, expand the number of individuals considered a priority for deportation, ease due process requirements, and threaten to take away critical federal funding from sanctuary cities for not cooperating with the government (which was later declared unconstitutional).
Moreover, the legal process for immigration has lengthened as more people apply to enter the United States. Entering the United States legally has become harder than ever. There are up to two million Indian workers in the backlog, with estimated wait times somewhere between half a century to three and a half centuries. Those numbers do not even include backlogs from other countries, such as China and the Philippines, which have been growing tremendously as well.
Refugees searching for safer living environments cannot afford to endure these sorts of waiting times to enter the United States. Sanctuary cities provide a solution to the irreconcilability between asylum seekers and United States’ immigration timelines. In a period where the federal government is cracking down on those who need help the most, sanctuary cities provide the safe space that these immigrants need. Sanctuary cities allow for those seeking refuge in the United States to safely rebuild their lives while also contributing to the economy.
Despite the common perception that undocumented immigrants are a safety risk and harm the local economies of sanctuary cities, quite the opposite is true. By providing space in society to undocumented immigrants, sanctuary cities become safer overall and contribute to a healthier economy. Municipalities in the United States ought to be able to declare themselves “sanctuary cities” without suffering significant backlash from the federal government predicated on fear-based immigration narratives.
What Are Sanctuary Cities?
While there is no legal definition of the term “sanctuary city,” the term is used in a politically-charged sense rather than a legal one. The concept of a sanctuary derives from the ancient Greek imperative to provide hospitality to a stranger. Sanctuary cities recognize that in the majority of cases, deportation is the wrong punishment for illegal immigration, which is a breach of civil and not criminal law. They acknowledge that undocumented immigrants have crossed the border to take work that is offered to them, contribute to the economy of a new country, and rebuild their lives in a safer environment.
Sanctuary cities challenge the notion that deportation is the correct punishment for an individual whose intent is not to commit an offense against the federal government (a breach of criminal law)—which include crimes such as murder, theft, and drunk driving—but who simply did not fill out all the required documents to enter the country legally, which is more analogous to failing to follow a city code (a breach of civil law).
There are eight sanctuary states and over three hundred sanctuary jurisdictions in the United States. These cities, counties and states have laws, ordinances, regulations or policies that shield undocumented immigrants from ICE. These mechanisms include refusing or prohibiting agencies from complying with ICE detainers, denying agencies access to interview undocumented immigrants that are incarcerated, or refusing to communicate and provide information to ICE. Currently, more than 11.1 million undocumented immigrants live in these cities, where they can access jobs, healthcare and education.
Sanctuary cities promote safety in cities in two ways. First, sanctuary cities facilitate improved resource allocation. Trump’s new executive order allows police to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants regardless of whether any crime has been committed. His policy is widely unpopular and has led to high levels of racial profiling. It also destroys any priority of deporting those who do genuinely commit crimes. In sanctuary cities, police have significantly fewer people to be concerned about—they can focus on targeting serious criminals rather than arresting or detaining immigrants based solely on their documentation.
Second, sanctuary cities seek to create communities that increase communication and foster trust between undocumented immigrants and law enforcement. Police officers and other law enforcement members can serve the public good more effectively when people in general (not just undocumented immigrants) are incentivized to report crimes, give tips, and testify as witnesses. Sanctuary cities have the potential to strengthen community-police relations in the United States, which are thoroughly strained these days, particularly along racial lines.
Empirically, cities that have significant involvement between their police forces and immigration agencies tend to witness less crime. Latinos are 45 percent less likely to cooperate with the police or report crimes in non-sanctuary cities due to the fear of being criminalized or deported. Non-citizens should not feel at risk for removal from the country when they interact with police. That kind of fear and unwelcomeness will further destabilize the relationship between immigration and law enforcement.
For these two reasons—improved resource allocation and police-immigrant communication—the Washington Post found in 2017 that sanctuary cities had an overall 15 percent lower crime rate than the rest of the country on average. Contrary to popular misconception, sanctuary cities are critical allies in increasing safety, which benefits immigrants and American citizens alike.
Sanctuary Quality of Life
Moreover, sanctuary cities create a better quality of life for residents due to two reasons. First, with more people in urban areas, sanctuary cities have an increased tax base and enjoy higher tax revenue. Contrary to popular belief, the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number issued by the IRS allows individuals who are not allowed to work in the United States to file taxes on any income that they earn. Undocumented immigrants pay over 23.6 billion dollars in income taxes alone every year, even for benefits they cannot reap.
Undocumented immigrants have a strong incentive to pay taxes, as a record of citizenly acts will help bolster their cases to become legal citizens. Local and state tax revenues are incredibly important: they are used, for example, to fund health benefits, assistance to low-income families, economic development and education. Undocumented immigrants should be encouraged to boost local and state tax revenue as a means of integrating themselves into American society.
Second, undocumented immigrants expand the American job market. Through the work they do, the money they spend, and the taxes they pay, undocumented immigrants have become critical in sustaining jobs for others. Kugler of the Center for American Progress finds that in 2013, the entrepreneurial nature of undocumented immigrants allowed them to create jobs in the United States. Empirically, undocumented immigrants have created 5.2 million jobs in the United States’ economy. By providing a safe zone for undocumented immigrants to start businesses and contribute to their newfound broader communities, sanctuary cities create more jobs for all residents.
A safer state of mind for undocumented immigrants helps them to maintain high levels of productivity in the economy. Through job creation and a larger overall tax base, sanctuary cities have created environments where immigrants and American citizens alike are able to thrive. For these two reasons, sanctuary cities have an unemployment rate that is 1.1 percent lower than the national average—and the percentage of people who live below the federal poverty line is 2.3 percent lower.
The Governmental Component
Critics would contend that sanctuary cities encourage cities and states to disobey federal law when they simply do not like them, creating a slippery slope situation by delegitimizing the rule of the federal government. Specifically, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has accused these self-proclaimed sanctuary jurisdictions of violating US Code Section 1373, which states that federal, state, or local government entities or officials may not prohibit or restrict the exchange of information with federal immigration officers regarding the citizenship or immigration status of any individual.
Federal rule is critical to form a united country, but the United States was also founded through federalism: a separation of powers wherein the distribution of power is divided between the central government and the states. In response to Sessions trying to impose federal immigration law, sanctuary cities have sued the Department of Justice, claiming that a loss of federal funds would violate the Spending Clause of the Constitution. The Spending Clause dictates that Congress has the power to lay and collect taxes in order to promote the General Welfare of the United States and that, through this spending power, Congress can place requirements on states that comply with specific conditions in order to meet the qualifications for federal funds.
The Spending Clause dictates that the legislative branch has the ability to put conditions on funding rather than the executive branch. The federal government cannot “commandeer” the states by coercing them to “enact or administer a federal regulatory program.” Moreover, these sanctuary cities are not prohibiting or restricting federal immigration officers from acting to enforce the law rather, they choose not to assist with these matters by withholding information. If the federal government were to order ICE to head to Los Angeles to detain undocumented immigrants, there is little the state government could do to actively stop them other than to increase ICE’s degree of difficulty.
Support Sanctuary Cities
While opponents of sanctuary cities might say that the rise of undocumented immigrants would potentially lead to more dangerous cities with depleting economic growth, the opposite is true. The increased communications with local police forces and improved sense of community threats create a safe environment for undocumented immigrants and American citizens; the expanded tax base and additional jobs created by businesses of undocumented immigrants stimulate a growing economy. Moreover, despite Trump’s desires the executive branch does not have the ultimate authority to issue restrictions on funding to coerce states into aiding federal protocols; that would be impede Congress’ power under the Spending Clause in the Constitution.
In practice, sanctuary cities are comparatively better off than their counterparts. Americans should embrace them as tangible solutions to the United States’ twenty-first century immigration situation.