An explanation of sanctuary cities in the United States

I have sometimes wondered what made a sanctuary city with respect to immigration. I would hear about it from time to time, but since I would hear it so seldom, I would usually forget to find out before something more pressing captured my attention. That has changed in the heat of the current presidential election. Several (most? all?) of the Republican candidates have been blasting sanctuary cities. It has happened enough that someone out there did the research for me.

As it turns out, sanctuary cities aren’t much more than a political label that is pasted over a grey area in United States law. From The Washington Post: (bolding added by me)

The designation is an informal one, assigned by activists on both sides of the immigration debate. Governments are generally considered sanctuaries if local officials refuse to honor requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold onto suspected illegal immigrants arrested on minor charges while fed­eral agents figure out their status.

After a federal appeals court ruled in 2014 that these requests — known as “detainers” — were optional, the American Civil Liberties Union alerted local sheriff’s departments that they would be subject to lawsuits if they held a citizen without a proper warrant. Nearly 300 jurisdictions nationwide, conservative and liberal, have opted not to take that risk.

So here is an example of what happens. A sheriff’s department interacts with someone. Perhaps it is a traffic stop or some other minor offense that wouldn’t allow them to hold the person in jail. During the course of events, the federal government asks that they hold this person while they look further into whether they are a United States citizen or not. If it turns out that they are a Untied States citizen, they will be released. If they are not, then (presumably) arrangements would be made to turn the person over the federal immigration authorities.

But therein lies the problem. At the time that they are detained, no one knows whether that person is a United States citizen or not. If it turns out that they are a United States citizen, they could bring a lawsuit.

In the United States, in general, you aren’t allowed to hold a person without bringing charges against them and bringing them before the court. From FindLaw:

If you are detained but not booked within a reasonable period of time (usually several hours, or overnight) your attorney may go to a judge and obtain a writ of habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus is an order issued by the court instructing the police to bring you before the court so that a judge may decide if you are being lawfully held.

So sanctuary cities are generally nothing more than cities that don’t want to risk facing lawsuits for detaining people without knowing for sure that they have the legal authority to detain the person.


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I am a writer of words, a thinker of thoughts, a changer of genders, and a queerer of life. I am an antagonist of the ordinary; and while I do tolerate it, I also look at it with contempt.

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