There’s no official definition of “sanctuary,” but it generally refers to rules restricting state and local governments from alerting federal authorities about people who may be in the country illegally. In the past several years, sanctuary policies have come under fresh criticism especially after the July 2015 death of Kate Steinle, a woman who was shot and killed in San Francisco, allegedly by an undocumented (illegal) immigrant and repeat felon who had been deported five times to Mexico. San Francisco police had released him from custody after drug charges were dropped, despite a request from the Department of Homeland Security to deport him.
Immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility. That fact was reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. United States (2012). Under sanctuary policies, state and local law enforcement officials decide to what extent they will cooperate, or not, with the federal government on immigration enforcement.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can issue an “immigration detainer,” a request to be notified when a “criminal alien” (a noncitizen convicted of a crime) is being released from a state or local law enforcement agency. This is so ICE can take custody of such people when they’re released and figure out whether they’re subject to deportation. Many local jurisdictions do cooperate, with the idea that they’re multiplying forces to find removable noncitizens.
According to an ICE analysis, ICE has identified at least 165 cities and counties nationwide that have specific policies limiting cooperation on immigration enforcement. Some believe there may be more than 300 local jurisdictions having sanctuary policies of one kind or another. Such sanctuary jurisdictions are identified as being in Iowa and in surrounding states.
Proponents of sanctuary cities attempt to rebut arguments by opponents, like President-Elect Trump, as “phantom” claims that portray such policies as designed to protect illegal immigrants who commit crimes. But some local or state law enforcement agencies decide not to tell ICE when a “criminal alien” is released, apparently for several reasons. Some suggest it leads to mistrust between the community and law enforcement, because victims and potential witnesses might not come forward to report crimes if they are afraid of being reported to federal authorities for their immigration status.
One thing is for sure: state and local law enforcement are not obligated to jointly enforce the federal immigration laws of the United States. At the same time, the federal government has the right to withhold federal funds to state and local jurisdictions who refuse to cooperate with ICE when, for instance, a lawful detainer has been issued to have local law enforcement hold and detain the alleged criminal alien for ICE. Republicans in the United States Senate have introduced legislation that would block federal funding to sanctuary cities; however, the Democrats have blocked further consideration of such laws by invoking the 60-vote cloture rule. That may remain the case during a Trump administration since the Republicans do not have the votes to force an up or down vote on the legislation. Whether a President Trump through his executive authority can deny funds to sanctuary cities is up for debate.