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  • Writer's pictureJennie Cottle

Sanctuary Cities: How local policies stand up to immigration enforcement

Photo taken by Jennie Cottle at CARACEN, Los Angeles, 2017

It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.

- Justice Brandeis

Targeted during President Trump’s presidential campaign and directly threatened in his ensuing Executive Order in January 2017, the topic of sanctuary cities has resurfaced to the forefront of political debate in the past year. Although there is not one single definition of what it means to be a sanctuary city, at its basis, sanctuary cities are characterized by a general declaration of support by a city’s leaders for its residents, and in particular undocumented residents, with more ambitious policies that seek to limit how their local law enforcement agencies cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. While sanctuary cities date back to the 1980’s, they have received significant media and political attention as of late. Part of the controversy and media fascination with sanctuary cities stems from its very nature of encompassing issues of governance, immigration policy, grassroots activism and urban citizenship.

With a shift toward harsher and more restrictive immigration policies at the federal level, sanctuary city policies represent an innovative response by local jurisdictions exercising their role to test new social and economic experiments within the laboratory of federalism. Such policy experimentation and understanding what they entail is also key to comprehending the current immigration enforcement debate happening in the U.S., and echoed in many other parts of the world. Although even in the U.S., sanctuary cities differ in terms of the types of concrete policies or resolutions city leaders choose to enact, we can witness how cities and residents of cities around the world find ways to become part of their communities. In Paris, for example, the city hall launched a program called the carte-citoyenne (citizen card) in 2016 to encourage local participation in city events regardless of nationality. In Mexico, the mayor of Mexico City’s use of the term sanctuary city, although with a different implication, shows the possibility of local governments’ ability to learn from and mirror one another’s rhetoric and local policies.

Historical Context of Sanctuary Cities

Photo taken by Jennie Cottle at CARACEN, Los Angeles, 2017

The term sanctuary city was first developed during the 1980’s in the U.S. as a response to the treatment of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees by the federal government. Despite the presence of civil wars in both countries, few asylum seekers from Guatemala and El Salvador were granted refugee status in the U.S. Instead, they were labeled as “economic migrants” and as a result of the denial of their requests, faced imprisonment and deportation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS - later replaced by ICE). Jennifer Ridgley explains that in addition to the Cold War mindset and political climate, there was a “growing criminalization of migrants and refugees,” compared to the treatment of refugees in the 1950’s. Such rhetoric helped to bolster the U.S. government’s refusal to grant asylum to these individuals by setting the environment that these groups of people represented “illegal immigrants” and were therefore criminals, rather than asylum seekers.

As the U.S. government attempted to justify its refusal of refugee status through the use of incendiary rhetoric, refugee advocates and activist groups also began to respond, especially when reports from organizations like the ACLU publicly revealed the number of deportees who were killed after being sent back to their home countries and the conditions at INS detention centers. These reports and testimonies helped to spark the first Sanctuary Movement, originally led by a group of religious organizations in California and Arizona. These organizations, formed the basis of the movement, and were later joined by universities, civil rights groups and human rights organizations. Their primary goal aimed to provide basic services and legal assistance to these Central American asylum seekers.

Under the umbrella of the Sanctuary Movement, the local governments in favor of the movement began to provide resources to the organizations involved, as well as passing sanctuary city policies aimed at limiting support for the policing work enacted by the INS. Within three years, from 1984-1987, twenty cities and two states passed resolutions to provide sanctuary for Central Americans, many including “statements of noncooperation with the INS.” One of the most significant sanctuary cities to come forward at this time was San Francisco, which in 1985 passed its first resolution as a “City of Refuge,” , and in 1989 passed its first sanctuary city ordinance, making it the only city at that time to go beyond symbolic resolutions and statements and to issue a specific law related to the protection of immigrants.

While the language used in President Trump’s Executive Order in January 2017 was not unique in its sentiments and threat to withdraw federal funds, it reveals the culmination of decades of immigration criminalization policies and discourse. As a response to these contentious times, sanctuary cities reveal how a local grassroots movement can result in positive and concrete policy outcomes. They show how residents of a city, documented or undocumented, can utilize their own voices to work with elected officials to bring about change at different levels of government.

What is a Sanctuary City? Local Policy Innovation and Non-cooperation

There is not one sole definition of what it means to be a “sanctuary city.” Rather, as the historical movement has shown, sanctuary cities encompass a range of different policies and political statements, including symbolic formal declarations of a city leader's support for its residents with and without papers, to more concrete policy ordinances like a refusal to comply with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainer requests or to utilize local resources in deportation efforts. The following chart from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) provides a useful analysis of the different types of sanctuary policies that have been enacted by cities and shows how these policies attempt to govern the cities’ interactions with ICE. While there has been some political and media attention about whether or not sanctuary cities or states comply with immigration law, the carefully worded language found within state and local sanctuary ordinances, and reinforced by a string of judicial decisions, reveals that these states and city ordinances clearly state how they act in accordance with the law, and clarify that they only refrain from cooperating where compliance is voluntary.

As seen in the above chart, even within the realm of sanctuary cities, the responses of non-cooperation have not been uniform. Rather, they outline various steps taken by local actors in their search to redefine some of the boundaries that have been blurred by increasing federal presence in local policing and local governments. Although the different responses reveal that each local actor has set out to define its own relationship with the federal government, there are still six main actions that have been observed and categorized. As interviews in Santa Ana, one of the newer sanctuary cities, revealed, local actors looked towards the models of other sanctuary cities, such as San Francisco, to learn from and develop their own policies. This shows an informal network among sanctuary cities to share knowledge and policies, both at the local activist level, but also at the level of local city governments.

One of the innovative aspects of sanctuary cities stems from the view that immigration and social reform can come from the local level, as well as the national level. Activists and local politicians do not only need to depend on the federal government to reform immigration policies, but can show how national immigration policies depend on cities, states and local officials to implement their programs. While U.S. sanctuary cities represent one example of innovation at the local level, we can witness how global cities across the world are playing an increasingly larger role in encouraging local citizenship and identity, promoting diversity and inclusion, and working toward greater economic and environmental sustainability. Cities and towns serve as the first point of contact for many people in different countries to interact with their local government officials and can provide the space where their residents' voices should be heard.

Santa Ana: Grassroots Activism and Urban citizenship

In January 2017, Santa Ana became one of the newest cities to pass a sanctuary city resolution and legal ordinance. The city has a long history with immigration, and today hosts a population that is 78% Latino. Because of this, local community members have felt a direct effect of discrimination from migration policies and local policing which have directly targeted Latino immigrant populations. On the other hand, its location in Orange County, California, a primarily Republican district does not represent the same types of progressive enclaves found in areas like San Francisco. Community members and activists reported a sense of urgency due to the 2016 presidential elections that had not been present in the past, and explained that this helped them to achieve concrete objectives that had not previously been attainable.

Santa Ana is located in southern California and is the second largest city in Orange County, and eleventh largest in California. It is home to a population of 342,930 people, with a majority of its residents identifying as “Hispanic”, at 78.2%, followed by 10.4% identifying as “Asian”, and 9.2% as “White”. In addition, about half of the city’s residents are foreign born. Currently, the mayor and all six members of the city council are Latino. However, the council is made up of both Republicans and Democrats, and despite having a majority Hispanic population for several decades, the city’s first Sanctuary City Resolution was passed only in December of 2016. The city’s Sanctuary Resolution reveals the culmination of a long and slow struggle for political representation and protection of immigrants.

Santa Ana’s Sanctuary City Resolution and Ordinance

The national and local media coverage of Santa Ana following the passage of its Sanctuary City Ordinance both revered, and criticized the city as having passed one of the most ambitious and far-reaching sanctuary ordinances in the country. While many articles praised the city for its resolution, the struggle to implement the ordinance remains ongoing. The ordinance called for broad commitments to “implement policies to prevent biased-based policing”, to promote “social justice and inclusion” for all residents, including its immigrants, and to establish a commission or task force to carry out these policies.

The initial Sanctuary Resolution issued a series of ambitious, but mostly symbolic statements. However, on January 17, 2017, the city approved an ordinance which turned the resolution into law. This also meant that the more concrete provisions established in the resolution were now part of a contractually enforceable city ordinance. The ordinance laid out the following central provisions for the city to implement:

Graphic by Jennie Cottle, Santa Ana Sanctuary City Ordinance

In addition to these provisions, the ordinance also includes a section which states that it will “not conflict with any Federal law.” The ordinance therefore does not create a new immigration policy, but rather emphasizes that it is not within the city’s jurisdiction to implement federal immigration enforcement or use city resources to do so.

It is also possible to explain sanctuary cities’ actions in terms of costs to the cities. In the case of ICE detainer requests, for example, a series of lawsuits questioning the legal legitimacy of the policy have resulted in financial costs to cities. Court decisions in these cases have resulted in the city owing damages to individuals for being held beyond the established legal time frame without probable cause. In addition to challenges to the legal legitimacy of the program, lack of moral legitimacy has a cost to community relations with city officials. Police actions also have a negative effect on public health and education, for example, when families are afraid to have their children vaccinated or attend school for fear of deportation of themselves or a family member.

Passing the resolution and ordinance also required the presence and collaboration among a range of different actors, from grassroots organizing groups, legal aid societies and law schools, community members, and the city council. These “formal institutional and informal linkages” between public officials and the community were essential in pushing the city to develop its own policy of noncooperation. Observing local politics in action served as an integral component to witnessing one specific case of how local action translates into policy. It also illustrates how local government can indeed serve as a laboratory to test new policies and “novel social and economic experiments,” all while fulfilling its role in a federalist system.

Local Citizenship and Grassroots Mobilization in Santa Ana

Grassroots mobilization and local activism played an important role in garnering support for the Sanctuary City Ordinance. Just as activists responded to what they believed was an unjust policy in the late 1980s toward Central American refugees, local advocacy groups and associations were again essential in creating the push for a new sanctuary movement. The transformation from grassroots activism to policy reveals how collaboration between community members, legal organizations and law schools, non-profit organizations and city councils can produce tangible policy outcomes. While their tactics can take the form of protests, city-approved working groups and information sessions, these local actors all work within the realm of the federal system. By showing their willingness to join forces with local elected officials, they were able to turn their demands into policy with the hope that these local policies can eventually affect change at the highest federal level. Through this mobilization, participants in these movements reaffirm their rights as citizens, their universal human rights and the future of a more inclusive and resilient society.

As immigration takes center stage in global politics, immigrants are subjected to political manipulation on both sides of the political spectrum. It is therefore important to understand how local governments respond to this discourse and can develop and spread their own policies, internally and internationally. Coupled with the trends of globalization and growing urban populations around the world, cities increasingly represent laboratories for our societies to come to terms with immigration, local identity, diversity and integration. Ultimately, by analyzing immigration policies of cities and their local governments, we may be able to arrive at a deeper understanding of how to promote better governance and more inclusive societies as a whole.

A version of this article was re-published by The Conversation, available here


- Justice Brandeis: New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).

- President Donald Trump, Executive Order on Interior Enforcement on January 25, 2017

- Jennifer Ridgely. Cities of Refuge: Immigration Enforcement Police and the Insurgent Genealogies of Citizenship in U.S. Sanctuary Cities. Urban Geography, Vol. 29, 2008, p. 53-77

- INS stands for the Immigration and Naturalization Service; today this agency has been replaced by ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement

- Susan Gzesh. Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era. Migration Policy Institute, April 1, 2006. Available online at:

- Joseph Nevins. Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2010

- Susan Bibler Coutin. The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1993

- CBS San Francisco. TIMELINE: How San Francisco Became A Sanctuary City For Undocumented Immigrants.

- San Francisco Administrative Code. Section 12H.2: Use of City Funds Prohibited.

- U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Enforcement and Removal Operations Weekly Declined Detainer Outcome Report For Recorded Declined Detainers Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 2017.

- CNN Politics. DHS issues first ‘detainer’ report. March 20, 2017.

- NPR. DHS Publishes List Of Jurisdictions That Rejected Immigrant Detainer Requests. March 20, 2017.

- U.S. Code: Title 8, chapter 12, subchapter II, Part IX, Section 1373. 1996

- Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Searching for Sanctuary: An Analysis of America’s Counties and their Voluntary Assistance with Deportations. December 2016. Available online at:

- Corrie BILKE. Divided We Stand, United We Fall: A Public Policy Analysis of Sanctuary Cities’ Role in the “Illegal Immigration” Debate.Indiana Law Review, Vol. 42. No. 1, 2009

- Fourth Amendment U.S. Constitution: [t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

- Tom K. Wong. The Effects of Sanctuary Policies on Crime and the Economy.Center for American Progress and the National Immigration Law Center, January 2017. Available online at:

- Department of Homeland Security: Request for Voluntary Notification (Form I-247N). Buquer v. City of Indianapolis, 797 F.Supp.2d 905, 911 (S.D. Ind. 2011) (“A detainer is not a criminal warrant, but rather a voluntary request”)

- Jennie COTTLE. Interviews conducted in Santa Ana and Los Angeles, California. February-March, 2017.

- California State Department of Finance, Demographic Research Unit. January 1, 2016

- U.S. Census Bureau as of July 2015. Website accessed April 2017. . Available online at:

- Pew Research Center: website accessed April 2017

- Resolution to Declare the City of Santa Ana a Sanctuary For All Its Residents Regardless of Their Immigration Status (Strategic Plan No. 5, 6F). December 6, 2016.

- Santa Ana City Ordinance No. NS-2908: Relating to the City’s Procedures Concerning Sensitive Information and the Enforcement of Federal Immigration Law Following the Declaration of the City of Santa Ana as a Sanctuary For All Its Residents. January 17, 2017.

- Jennie COTTLE. Interview with Jennifer Chacón, UC Irvine Law School, California. March 6, 2017.

- OC Register. ICE gives 90-day notice to end contract at Santa Ana Jail. OC Register. February 24, 2017.

- Harold BAUDER. Possibilites of Urban Belonging. Antipode. Vol. 48 No. 2 2016, p. 252–271

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