Since 2016 and Donald Trump’s entry into the presidential race, immigration has played a massive role in political discourse and dominated the nation’s political discourse in the years since. Fears were stoked following the outbreak of the ebola virus in several African countries in 2014, which helped to introduce or reinforce the idea of immigrants being dangerous or ‘unclean’ into the national conversation. Studies have shown, in fact, that views on immigration are largely based on feelings of cleanliness and safety. The response to the ebola outbreak was predictably split along party lines; Trump, anticipating his presidential campaign platforms, called for US citizens infected with the virus to be blocked from entering the country.
Since his election as president and subsequent attempts to curb both legal and illegal immigration into the country, a fierce rivalry has developed between the federal government and local states and municipalities that have begun to push back against what they see as harmful executive overreach. The term ‘sanctuary city’ is not a new one, but it has gotten significantly increased attention in the press lately as more and more cities pledge to fight the federal government’s strict immigration policies. A sanctuary city (or state) is any city that refuses to use its local resources to assist the federal government’s immigration enforcement agencies to locate, arrest, or deport illegal immigrants within their jurisdiction.
What the law says about sanctuary cities is fairly clear-cut, and can in fact be traced back to the constitution itself. Because of the enshrined protections for the rights of states to self-governance and the esteem with which the ideal of the right to self-determination is held, it places a significant barrier in the way of the federal government’s attempts to bend state law enforcement agencies to its will. Specifically, the federal government is prohibited from appropriating state-level agencies for the enforcement of federal regulations, and according to a 2018 appellate court case, the federal government can’t pull funds from the states in retaliation. The relationship between states and their cities is another matter, however, one that can sometimes become contentious. In the event that a city wants to provide some level of shelter to undocumented immigrants but the state aims to cooperate with federal regulations, there is fairly clear-cut legal evidence that the city must cooperate with the state’s directives. One of these conflicts was brought to a potential head recently when the city of San Antonio was sued by the state of Texas when a local law enforcement official showed leniency to a group of immigrants after butting heads with federal ICE agents that were on the scene.
One of the main arguments that proponents of sanctuary cities put forward, after the long list of humanitarian concerns, is that undocumented immigrants won’t cooperate with law enforcement or provide information or eyewitness testimony that could be vital to solving and prosecuting criminal cases if they fear reprisal by immigration authorities. There are also harrowing stories of immigrants who themselves become victims of crime but see no path to safety for themselves, as reporting the crime could lead to scrutiny that would result in their deportation. Opponents of sanctuary cities argue, predictably, that the immigrants are personally liable and could have avoided danger if they had entered the country legally. Even the protections offered by sanctuary cities remains limited in scope. Washington State has recently enacted laws that prohibit officers from investigating the immigration status of residents unless absolutely necessary, but for residents in the biggest sanctuary cities, there is still a significant lack of protection from important statutes like Seattle Personal Injury law, worker safety statutes, and other avenues for legal protection and compensation, and undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable to exploitation through by their employers.
Sanctuary cities remain a hotly contested issue both at the national and local level. After experiencing several early setbacks in the court system, Trump has promised to find new and more creative ways to retaliate against cities that buck the administration’s standards, pledging to overload those cities with busloads of immigrants that otherwise would have been deported. Whether or not this policy will be implemented remains to be seen after pushback from within the administration itself. The debate outside the federal government is similarly fraught with hot tempers and a disconcerting racist bent. The mayor of Seattle last year was attacked by one of his constituents over his positive views of the city’s sanctuary status. “We’re not going to let you Latino illegals take over our city,” were the attacker’s alleged words after attacking the mayor from behind at a party. The phrasing seems to imply that the unnamed attacker believed the mayor himself to be an undocumented immigrant, all the more unfortunate given that Jimmy Matta, the victim in question, is the city’s first Latino mayor.
The struggle over sanctuary cities will continue into the future, as the national debate over immigration at large continues to escalate. But for now, the legality remains uncontested: it’s up to the states to decide.