ArticlesEstudios Fronterizos, vol. 20, 2019, e029

The spectrum of sanctuary cities in the United States: Contrasting the genesis and practices of proimmigrant local policies

El espectro de ciudades santuario en Estados Unidos: Los contrastes en la génesis y las prácticas de las políticas locales proinmigrantes

Estefanía Cruz Leraa*

a Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Centro de Investigaciones sobre América del Norte, México, email:

* Corresponding author: Estefanía Cruz Lera, email:

Received on March 6, 2019.
Accepted on June 7, 2019.
Published on July 8, 2019.

CITATION: Cruz, E. (2019). El espectro de ciudades santuario en Estados Unidos: Los contrastes en la génesis y las prácticas de las políticas locales proinmigrantes. [The spectrum of sanctuary cities in the United States: Contrasting the genesis and practices of proimmigrant local policies]. Estudios Fronterizos, 20, e029. doi:

The so called sanctuary cities are actually the main source of opposition to anti-immigrant federal policies in the United States. The central argument of this cross case study is that the category of sanctuary agglutinates a set of laws, policies and informal practices of different nature, with varied political genesis and different degrees of insurgency. This article argues that in-deep study of the context framing each different kind of sanctuary city helps to explain the existence of a contrasting spectrum. With the aims to contrast them, three representative categories within the spectrum are analyzed: sanctuary of rhetoric, informal sanctuary, and welcoming sanctuary. This research concludes that the most representative sanctuary practices ─the most contestative and with the highest degree of scalability─ are linked to the need of the city to defend funding access and to protect its political autonomy; but also, they are linked to the capacity of organized migrants to make alliances with local political stakeholders.
Keywords: sanctuary cities, immigration policy, local migration in the US.

Las denominadas ciudades santuario son actualmente la principal fuente de oposición a las políticas federales antiinmigrantes en Estados Unidos. El argumento central de este estudio cross caso, es que la categoría santuario aglutina un conjunto de leyes, políticas y prácticas informales de diferente naturaleza, con génesis políticas variadas y con diferentes grados de insurgencia. Este artículo sostiene que el estudio a profundidad del contexto en el que se enmarca cada tipo de santuario puede explicar la existencia de un espectro tan contrastante. Para diferenciarlas se proponen tres categorías representativas dentro del espectro: los santuarios de retórica, los santuarios de facto y los santuarios de bienvenida. Este estudio concluye que las prácticas santuario más representativas ─con mayor insurgencia y grado de escalabilidad─ están ligadas a la necesidad de la ciudad de defender su acceso a fondos y proteger su autonomía política; pero también, a la capacidad de los migrantes organizados para hacer alianzas con actores políticos locales.
Palabras clave: ciudades santuario, política migratoria, migración local en EE.UU.

Original article language: Spanish.


Immigrants comprise approximately 16.9% of the workforce in the United States, and it is estimated that 63% are concentrated in only 20 metropolitan areas (Passel & Cohn, 2017). Most of these cities are traditional immigrant destinations that have created narratives around immigration in order to expedite their incorporation into urban dynamics (Hoekstra, 2017). Urban economies attract more foreign workers and are also gateways to other areas of the country. These dynamics produce very different local responses to immigrants.

The United States Constitution delegates all customs and border control functions to the federal government (migration policy), while local governments are encouraged to create policies for receiving and integrating immigrants (immigration policy). In this context, cities find a political niche in the paradox that the US Constitution confers responsibility for maintaining strict border control to the federal government but also confers rights to every individual in the country regardless of their national origin or immigration status (Chand & Schreckhise, 2015; Varsanyi, Lewis, Provine & Decker, 2011). This paradox between an exclusionary regime of citizenship and the constitutional standards of personality, due process and individual rights has led to new possibilities for local governments regarding institutional mechanisms to protect their undocumented population from a deportation process solely based on the lack of immigration documents.

This context of having more local responses for protecting undocumented immigrants from federal anti-immigrant policy prompts the following questions that guide this study:

To answer these questions, this research analyzes so-called sanctuary cities. We begin by acknowledging that there is no official definition of a sanctuary city. This is a term for a range of cities - from those with unofficial practices of noncooperation with federal immigration officials to the opposite extreme of cities with specific laws, ordinances and policies that welcome immigrants (Gonzalez, Collingwood & El-Khatib, 2017).

This classification of sanctuary cities leads to our first research hypothesis:

H1 The sanctuary movement brings together a heterogeneous set of practices, laws and policies that share an initial motivation but differ in their practical effects.

In other words, this study contends that not all sanctuary laws and policies have specific impacts on local immigration management or on the lives of undocumented immigrants. Sanctuary laws incorporate mechanisms for relaxing immigration enforcement to deal with the current negative political environment surrounding immigrants. Furthermore, sanctuary-related practices are not always from official sources and are focused on the social welfare needs of the most vulnerable immigrants.

Several agencies have created lists and maps of sanctuary cities, including the Department of Homeland Security (2017), the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (2018), and the Center for Immigration Studies (2019). Unfortunately, these maps do not explore each case in-depth, nor do they take into account the individual circumstances and origins of these sanctuary cities.

The U.S. Department of Justice lists 47 cities in its database of sanctuary cities (The United States Department of Justice [USDJ], 2017). The list includes large metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles but also small towns such as Winooski and Aberdeen. In contrast, other cities with some of the highest percentages of foreign-born populations such as Hialeah, FL (74.4%) and Miami, FL (56.4%), are not considered sanctuary cities. This paradox leads to our second hypothesis:

H2 The size of a city’s immigrant population does not influence its adoption of pro-immigrant policies while the sociopolitical capital of immigrants in the city does.

Lieberman (2013) explains that a fragmented and decentralized institutional structure offers many access points for immigrants seeking to influence local politics. However, this same decentralization produces different responses from local governments, which can be a double-edged sword for immigrants, especially when these responses dissipate discussions about deep, structural changes in immigration laws and policies.

Considering the differences between one city and another, it is impractical to establish rigid analytical categories. It is more fruitful to perform a detailed study of cases that exhibit high levels of political innovation. Thus, the third working hypothesis is as follows:

H3 An analysis of political trajectories will identify different origins, different approaches and various levels of political protest within the spectrum of sanctuary cities.

There is a growing recognition that cities play an increasingly important role in immigration management. In this regard, numerous in-depth case studies have been done on local immigration management. However, there are few studies that compare these local responses and examine their differences (Schiller, Çaglar & Guldbrandsen, 2006). With the aim of contributing in this area, this research focuses on a cross-case study of the sanctuary cities that have the most political influence today.

Data and Methods

Due to the nature of the topic and the questions that motivated the study, the research design was inductive and qualitative. A multimethodology strategy was used to collect the data used in this research.

This research uses data collected during the fieldwork conducted for various studies between 2014 and 2018 on the political assimilation of immigrants in California, Texas and Illinois as well as in the cities of Philadelphia and New York. The empirical work in these sanctuary cities revealed that there is a feedback loop between local policies and the agency of local political actors. In each case, the sanctuary cities were a starting point that leveraged the local political dynamics of immigrants. However, the protection they offer varies between discourse, procedure and (to a lesser extent) public programs.

The fieldwork included first-hand observation in meetings of immigrants with local governments, in conferences held by public authorities, and in public demonstrations conducted by immigrant organizations. Excerpts from interviews with local authorities and immigrant activists are included in the California and Chicago cases. Subsequently, in the case documentation phase, reports from civic organizations were collected, as well as reports from print and television media on city laws and programs. Last, primary sources were used because it is recognized that sanctuary practices and policies almost always predate their institutionalization through laws. Table 1 lists the ordinances and laws analyzed:

Table 1: List of sanctuary laws reviewed
List of sanctuary laws reviewed
Cities States
Chicago Equal Access Executive Order (1985) California Trust Act (2013)
Chicago Fair and Equal Access (1989) California Values Act (2017)
New Americans Plan (Chicago 2012)
Chicago Welcoming Ordinance (2012)
Chicago Municipal ID (2017)
San Francisco City and County of Refuge Ordinance (1989) Illinois Trust Act (2017)
San Francisco due Process for All Ordinance (2013, 2016) Illinois Safe Zones Act (2017)
Illinois Anti-Registry Program Act (2018)
  Illinois Voices Act (2018)
Denver Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act (2017) Texas SB 4 (2018)
New York City Executive Orders 34, 41, 120, 128 (2003-2009) Indiana SB 590 (2011)
NYC Equal Access to Human Services (2003)
NYC Municipal ID (2015)
New York 1568-2017 Protecting Immigrant Communities: Municipal Policy to Confront Mass Deportation and Criminalization (2017)
Boston Welcoming Community Trust (2018)
Austin Freedom City (2018)  
Philadelphia Executive Order on Police Cooperation with ICE (2014, 2016)  
Source: created by the author based on empirical research data.

Two criteria were applied to select the example cases for each category. The first is related to making the term “sanctuary” less ambiguous. The second is the case’s level of innovation (within each category).

For the data analysis, policy trajectory analysis was used, which is part of the qualitative process-tracing methodology. This transactional approach looks for the causal mechanisms and specific dynamics that resulted in a political process influencing a particular channel. In other words, the specific history and interactions of the actors involved are traced in chronological order to reconstruct the policy trajectory of the representative cases.

Theoretical Approaches to the Study of Sanctuary Cities

From an analytical perspective, the scale of a city offers a very productive setting for studying the political dynamics of migration. Diversity and ethnic-demographic change are much more visible processes in cities. The local context allows us to focus on politically relevant circumstances to analyze the responsiveness of the political system, especially regarding how different interests and values are accommodated in the local public domain (Glick & Çaglar, 2009). Local governments frequently find themselves having to mediate between the different agendas and positions of their native and immigrant populations. This process of accommodation results in inclusionary or exclusionary policies, depending on the endogenous characteristics of each city.

For immigrants, cities offer more possibilities for collective action, access to services provided by an organized civil society, access to resources, and mechanisms for participating in the public arena. Mollenkopf argues that a local focus facilitates the deciphering of the development and maintenance of local coalitions and highlights tensions between coalitions that could cause both divisions and reorganizations, especially when they partly depend on immigrant mobilization (Mollenkopf, 2013, p. 114).

The different ways local governments manage their immigrant populations have also given rise to several lines of research. Without a doubt, what has spawned the most research are negative responses, local opposition and exclusionary policies (Harwood & Myers, 2002; Hopkins, 2010; Varsanyi, 2011). The same is true in journalism, as anti-immigrant responses arouse more interest from the press and public opinion than positive ones.

There are numerous studies and reports on the relationship between local immigration management and crime in the English-language literature. Kent & Carmichael (2017) found that when a city has more racial segregation and higher levels of unemployment, the police are more likely to support immigration enforcement activities. Regarding the sanctuary-crime relationship, Lyons, Velez & Santoro (2013) discovered that contrary to the claims of sanctuary policy opponents, the cities in their sample have lower rates of violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

The legal aspects of sanctuary cities have also been widely addressed and mostly address the rights of cities to litigate for their autonomy and to defend their right to federal funding. Also notable are studies on federal devolution and decentralization processes that analyze the authority of local governments to legislate immigration and to limit police cooperation in immigration enforcement (Eisinger, 1998; Varsanyi et al., 2011). Another legal line of research is studies with integrationist approaches (Chand & Schreckhise, 2015; Cunningham, 2017). These studies criticize the plethora of agencies with overlapping responsibility for immigration policy and advocate for the integration of these mechanisms and the channels for legal cooperation at the various levels of government involved in immigration management.

The laws and ordinances that limit local cooperation with immigration enforcement only affect the lives of immigrants when they are accompanied by policies, implementation programs and an adequate budget. Cornelius (2010) explains that immigrants bring challenges and opportunities for cities and represent local political arenas that can influence national immigration policies by reinforcing or restricting their effects. This notion is leading to a growing optimism that cities can mediate, halt or reverse the effects of national immigration policy (Filomeno, 2017). This has expanded the horizons of the study of sanctuary cities as breeding grounds for community policies and practices related to urban renewal (Harwood & Myers, 2002; Levine & Gershenson, 2014; Paik, 2017).

One of the greatest challenges for research on sanctuary cities has been to demonstrate that the impacts of urban dynamics are not just local and that cities are affected by external dynamics as well. Bauder (2016) explains that becoming a sanctuary city is more of a political process than a stated objective. Instead, the goal is to illustrate how immigrants and refugees are treated differently on the local and national stages. Similarly, Ridgley (2008) argues that sanctuary cities, as they exist today, owe their existence to the dynamics of immigration criminalization.

According to Huang & Liu (2016), local needs and economic imperatives linked to political factors help explain why some cities adopt pro-immigrant laws. These authors developed an analytical model based on logistic regression to prove that the foreign-born population, unemployment and poverty rates, the central roles of cities, and electoral preferences are variables that differentiate between sanctuary cities and cities that have not exhibited these characteristics. A similar study by Ramakrishnan & Wong (2007) indicated that the adoption of pro-immigrant policies is influenced by the impacts of demographic changes driven by immigration, which progressively increases the influence of these sectors on local politics.

The abovementioned studies explain the motivations and reasons why cities join the sanctuary movement. In contrast, this study contributes to the literature by explaining the different origins of sanctuary cities and the different levels of local political protest against the anti-immigrant stance of the federal government.

Areas of Continuity and Change in the Sanctuary Movement

The sanctuary movement in the United States dates back to the 1980s, when the federal government announced the end of TPS1 for refugees from the Central American civil wars. The end of this complementary protection status brought about mass raids and deportations of low-priority immigrants (Gonzalez et al., 2017). This anti-immigrant policy produced a sanctuary movement developed by religious groups that primarily provided refuge within their religious infrastructure to some immigrants at imminent risk of deportation. This practice was effective because places of worship were recognized as socially sensitive spaces, which would prevent immigration officers from detaining immigrants there.

Tucson, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities in Arizona, Texas and California were key actors in this initial sanctuary movement (Stoltz, Hamilton & Loucky, 2009). In this stage, most of the people who took refuge in the churches were mainly parents of mixed-status families. The situation was exacerbated in 1986 due to the restrictions imposed by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Subsequently, the sanctuary movement lost some momentum in the 1990s due to amnesty and immigration regularization campaigns.

In the 21st century, the sanctuary movement swelled again to face the challenge of the Patriot Act (United States Congress, 2001), which linked anti-immigrant measures to national security. At this historical juncture, the sanctuary movement brought together the support of 100 places of worship throughout the country, the support of civic organizations, and even the commitment of 47 congressional representatives (Bilke, 2009). Another initiative that sprung up during this stage was the “sanctuary campus”. This movement was led by academics, staff and students from 200 universities and colleges who demanded on-campus protection for their undocumented students.

The predominance of a restrictive approach to migration resulted in a number of deportations of low-priority immigrants. Many individuals gained the support of public opinion by moving into churches to avoid deportation (Paik, 2017). One of the most famous cases is community activist Elvira Arellano, who, with her US-born son, sought refuge in a Methodist church in Chicago’s Humboldt Park and managed to stay there for a year (Cook, 2013). They were eventually deported, but Arellano managed to return to the US on a humanitarian visa to continue her activism.

At this point in history, it is worth noting the areas of continuity and divergence between the old sanctuary movement and the contemporary movement. The original sanctuary movement was geared towards Central American refugees, had a high moralistic undertone from faith-based groups, and was framed by a compassionate approach to migration (Bender & Arrocha, 2017). In contrast, the so-called “new sanctuary movement” is led by cities (local governments), whose main motivation is to challenge the criminalization of its residents simply because they do not have formal immigration status.

Steil & Vasi (2014) describe how there was a proliferation of exclusionary laws in 2006 that aimed at immigration control through deterrence. These authors drew attention to laws such as the mandatory requirement for local businesses to use the E-Verify program, “English only” policies in the provision of city services, restrictions for noncitizens, and other measures aimed at discouraging undocumented immigrants from settling in cities. In light of this, immigrant organizations and defense leagues mobilized to pressure local governments to adopt sanctuary ordinances.

In addition to local anti-immigrant laws, the Secure Communities (S-Comm) program was in effect between 2008 and 2014, which was an important driver of the creation of sanctuary cities during President Barack Obama’s administration. S-Comm required city police to detain undocumented immigrants listed in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) databases. The main justification for this practice was crime reduction. However, statistics indicate that approximately 50% of all immigrants detained under this program had no prior criminal record (Chand & Schreckhise, 2015). The nebulous S-Comm practices were frequently challenged at the community level, which caused sanctuary laws and policies to proliferate.

San Francisco is often cited as the first sanctuary city because in 1985, the “City and County of Refuge” resolution passed:

…federal employees, not City employees, should be considered responsible for implementation of immigration and refugee policy, and City departments shall not act in a way that may cause the deportation of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees.2

However, it was not until 1989 that the city adopted a policy prohibiting officers from asking city residents about immigration status or from disclosing this sensitive information. Although San Francisco was not the first sanctuary city, it has been the most famous once since the Steinle3 case, which linked sanctuary cities to crime.

Other cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles had previously adopted even stronger sanctuary policies. For example, Gonzalez et al. (2017) document how the city of Madison, Wisconsin, passed Resolution 39/105 in 1983 in support of churches offering sanctuary to Central American refugees. Later, in 1985, the same city passed Resolution 41/075 limiting local cooperation with immigration enforcement activities.

Also in 1985, Harold Washington became Chicago’s mayor by making campaign promises that forged a political alliance between African-Americans and Latinos. These promises resulted in a city ordinance that limited cooperation with federal immigration officials and prohibited civil servants in the city from asking people applying for jobs, licenses and social services about their immigration status. In 1989, Mayor Daley extended the ordinance by adding a “fair and equal access” clause pertaining to Chicago’s city services regardless of the immigration status of its residents.

The spectrum is currently becoming broader as sanctuary policies include significant differences. These cities have become the principal, most powerful source of opposition in this paradoxical political system where immigration policy is under the jurisdiction of a federal government that is anti-immigrant, while local governments have implemented accommodation policies and assimilation processes in more progressive contexts. It is worth mentioning that the future of sanctuary cities is uncertain, as their opponents (including the executive branch) are seeking legal mechanisms to penalize and restrict the impact of sanctuary policies.

President Donald Trump has made sanctuary cities the main target of his anti-immigrant narrative and has even sought ways to cut the flow of federal funds to these cities. For example, he used the Byrne grants (Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant), which are funds for cities to combat violent crime, to channel funding to cities that are in the aforementioned ICE database. Even in these adverse circumstances, cities have not stopped looking for ways to ensure the economic and social vitality that results from migration.

Sanctuary Cities Today: Three Representative Cases from the Spectrum

The spectrum of sanctuary cities includes different types of practices, laws and policies that make it difficult to classify them in strict categories. However, there are some cities that are very representative and stand out in the micro universe. We can use these cities to analyze their different origins, diverse forms of implementation, and varying degrees of local protest against the federal anti-immigrant stance. In this section, three representative cases are analyzed: rhetorical sanctuaries, informal sanctuaries and welcoming sanctuaries.

First, rhetorical sanctuaries are characterized as having pro-immigrant ordinances and laws that do not go beyond the level of discourse and lack specific implementation mechanisms. The main problem with this is that the ordinances are easily manipulated and modified by local governments and are subject to the attitudes towards immigrants of the group currently in power. In addition, the declarations of sanctuary status are not aligned with pro-immigrant activist groups and their community-based activities to confront immigration restrictions.

Critics of sanctuary cities explain that even when there are legal frameworks that support noncooperation with immigration enforcement measures, they only represent good intentions without specific implementation mechanisms. These same critics indicate that when a law is not implemented through a set of policies, it becomes a “dead letter”. Additionally, a policy without an adequate budget is only talk. In this regard, a city councilman stated:

It’s very important for me to ensure that Chicago is truly a sanctuary city, and not one in name only, because you cannot fight anti-immigrant policies with pro-immigrant rhetoric. You have to fight it with pro-immigrant policies (Ramírez-Rosa, 2017).

There are two scenarios that give rise to rhetorical sanctuaries. The first scenario consists of cities that pass resolutions prohibiting cooperation with anti-immigrant operations, even when such operations only occur sporadically due to their sparse immigrant population. In these cases, the adoption of sanctuary measures is used as a political resource to highlight the progressive nature of local politics. Again, this is because immigrant raids and mass deportations never occur or only occur sporadically.

Another scenario that prompts the adoption of rhetorical sanctuaries by local governments stems from the impending escalation of anti-immigrant positions in counties near the metropolis or in other cities in the same state. Some cities such as Denver that are not among those with the most immigrants have been categorized as sanctuaries because they are in states with anti-immigrant policies or are close to cities with highly restrictive legislation regarding undocumented residents. Denver is a particularly interesting example of a rhetorical sanctuary.

Denver, Colorado, is recognized as being an important arena for the Chicano movement in the 1960s.4 However, the contemporary history of immigrant activism in this city is very different from its recent past. It is estimated that 37% of its 55 000 immigrants are undocumented (Passel & Cohn, 2017). In 2006, Denver immigrants faced a growing number of statewide anti-immigrant laws, including extreme persecution such as the creation of a state immigration enforcement troop. The Colorado Immigration Reporting Law was effective from 2006-2012, which required police to collect and report the immigration status of any person with whom they came into contact.

In Denver, positions on migration have always been widely divided. As late as 2011, the city participated in the S-Comm program. However, during the 2012 mayoral elections, the Colorado Fiscal Institute reported that immigration enforcement in the city was affecting the local economy and vitality (Partnership for a New American Economy, 2016).5 That year, the newly reelected mayor, Michael Hancock, dropped the federal S-Comm program. However, a sanctuary initiative was not presented to the city council until 2017. The main opponents of this initiative included Denver’s sheriff, who raised arguments associating immigration with crime. An agreement was ultimately reached in August 2017, producing a heavily modified law compared to the original initiative.

Denver is a rhetorical sanctuary because the Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act (2017) only limits cooperation with ICE’s deportations, and there are numerous exceptions all related to public safety. For example, one of the exceptions is that local prisons must inform immigration authorities 24 hours prior to the release of an undocumented immigrant. In other words, there is a gap between the spirit of Denver’s sanctuary ordinances and the way in which the local government has prioritized public safety over immigration. As previously explained, to produce impacts and go beyond mere changes in talking points, the relationship between mixed-status communities and the local police must be reworked using community-based approaches. The Denver ordinance is stuck on the discursive level in part because the immigrant community has developed isolated initiatives such as rapid response networks.6 Local immigrant organizations are mainly cultural and civic in nature, while political influence is achieved through local chapters of national defense leagues and organizations.

The second type of sanctuary city analyzed in this article is informal sanctuaries, which develop when there is a metropolis with a large immigrant population in a state with restrictive laws and anti-immigrant attitudes. These cities then adopt informal practices that range from purposely failing to carry out state law, litigating in the courts to obtain autonomy in immigration management matters, and even implementing sanctuary policies under other guises or through other urban restructuring initiatives.

This is the situation of San Antonio, Texas, a city that has attracted media attention as being the most stark example of divergence between local and state governments. In practice, however, it is only a rhetorical sanctuary due to the informality of its other restrictive practices.

Latino political influence in the Republican stronghold of Texas is increasingly visible. Issues such as the youth of the Latino population and their low rates of citizenship have led to a progressive increase in the collective capital of this minority. Because Texas is a border state, irregular migration is a highly divisive issue, and the Republican-controlled state is noted for its support for immigration enforcement. However, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio are among the 12 metropolitan areas with the most undocumented immigrants (Passel & Cohn, 2017). This has led to conflict between local and state governments regarding immigration governance, with the most local opposition coming from San Antonio.

San Antonio has an informal practice of noncooperation in immigration enforcement activities. While there is no local ordinance in that regard, there is a policy carried out by local police of not questioning or disclosing the immigration status of detainees. These measures have been the target of many criticisms. In 2017, in the Texas Senate passed the “Anti-Sanctuary Law” (Texas Senate Bill 4, 2016), which requires cities to appoint specific personnel for immigration enforcement and cooperation with ICE. It also forces local police to keep those suspected of irregular immigration in detention until their status is confirmed. San Antonio police opposed this measure, and the state of Texas sued the city in response. El Paso, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas then countered by filing a complaint on the matter in federal court.

The Texas Attorney General stated at a press conference:

Unfortunately, some municipalities such as San Antonio put the safety of police and citizens at risk by defying state law. The court must accept our request for injunctions and civil sanctions against San Antonio to send a message to all Texas cities that they must obey the law (Paxton, 2017).

It is worth noting that this Texas anti-immigrant law establishes that appointed (not elected) city officials will be fined for applying or disseminating sanctuary measures.

In response, Representative Saldaña, an active opponent of this law, stated:

We will see how Senate Law 4, the most draconian anti-immigrant law in the country, can withstand Texas cities ready to defend their communities and the toughest litigators in the nation from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (Saldaña, 2018).

It is also worth noting San Antonio’s elected officials talk about noninstitutional, public sanctuary, but the city has no official sanctuary ordinances. That is, although migration is deemed to be a public issue in San Antonio, the city has no specific sanctuary policies, which means it can only be considered a rhetorical sanctuary.

The third type of sanctuary city is those with sanctuary ordinances that are complemented by policies of accommodation and collaboration between public agencies and immigrant organizations. These cities believe that sanctuary cities can be the drivers of political change when they go beyond “I don’t ask about immigration status, and I don’t share it”. A Chicago activist explained:

You know, everyone talks about how to have better sanctuary cities. But that’s not a solution for all immigrant problems. We know that sanctuaries are a tool we are using to prevent and resist. But that’s the key - preventing public resources from being used to fund deportations instead of being invested in urban development (Activista I, 2017).

Given the ambiguity of the term “sanctuary city” and how opponents criminalize such cities by calling them “crime hotbeds” (Sessions, 2017), cities have sought ways to avoid having their laws and policies put into the rigid classifications of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. Thus, we find that cities with more progressive ordinances tend to become welcoming cities, compassionate cities, and freedom cities ─all as a result of stretching the boundaries of their sanctuary ordinances.

A very representative case of how these host sanctuaries have developed is Chicago’s Welcoming City. One should ponder how this immigrant “city that works” has managed to maintain its welcoming policies even though it is all alone in a Republican-controlled state in the rural Midwest. Chicago is one of the cities at the forefront of the defense and expansion of its sanctuary policies in response to President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

In 2011 when Rahm Emmanuel was elected mayor of Chicago, immigrant leaders thought that relationships between their organizations and city hall would deteriorate. Emmanuel did not advocate for immigration reform when he worked in the White House with President Barack Obama, and this caused distrust among the immigrant community. However, with Latinos being an important local political force, the mayor was obliged to respond to demands for expansion of the city’s old sanctuary movement measures.

In 2012, Chicago approved the New Americans Plan (2012) and Welcoming city ordinances (Welcoming Ordinances, 2012), which helped to extend the city’s services to its undocumented residents. Thus, Chicago developed legal assistance programs, English-as-a-second-language courses, business incubators for immigrants, and other public programs for immigrant assimilation, regardless of their immigration status. In addition, Chicago launched a coalition of welcoming cities along with New York, Boston and Los Angeles. These cities were convinced that revealing and publicizing the economic and cultural contributions of immigrants to the cities could increase support for sanctuary policies (Huang & Liu, 2016).

The increasing criminalization of minorities has affected Latinos, and the relationship between immigrants and local Chicago police is a sensitive issue in the city. The city has been pressured internally and externally to reduce its violent crime rate. For example, on January 24, 2017, President Trump tweeted: “If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” (Trump, 2017). This was an obvious response to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who earlier that week had reinforced the Welcoming City ordinances and filed a lawsuit in district court to protect sanctuary ordinances.

Pressure from immigrant organizations in Chicago to expand the protections offered by the city’s sanctuary policies led to the Trust Act, enacted by a Republican-controlled Illinois state government. The Chicago example demonstrates the potential for the scalability of sanctuary laws and ordinances when they are part of a broader strategy that includes assimilation policies and is linked to political activism by local immigrants. As an activist from California explains: “What’s happening now is not just a sanctuary movement. It is a modern, community-oriented strategy that has great potential to empower people and prevent civil rights violations” (Activista II, 2017).

The Future of Immigrant Sanctuaries: Scalability and Expansion of Sanctuary Measures

In public policy studies, scalability refers to the potential of a group of dynamic policies for horizontal or vertical expansion. Horizontal expansion is when policies are adopted by other locations or extended in the original city. Vertical expansion is when the success of the local policy is recognized and adopted at the state or federal level.

The scalability of sanctuary policies to the state level (vertical) is considered to be a model for the bottom-up transfer of public policies to address federal anti-immigrant policies by filling gaps that local jurisdictions cannot cover. Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon and California currently have state ordinances that prohibit local police from participating in immigration enforcement activities with ICE. However, due to the specific nature of the statewide practices and the content of the corresponding laws, only two states can be considered sanctuary states: Illinois and California.

As previously mentioned, one problem that sanctuary cities have is that for structural reasons, they have high crime rates. For critics of sanctuary ordinances, the restrictions on police officers when they come into contact with populations of mixed immigration status are a detriment to public safety. Consequently, local ordinances frequently include many exceptions for when the police can verify the immigration status of a detainee and report it to ICE.

For example, one exception in Chicago is when there is a suspected felony. The problem with this is that under state law, using falsified documents can be considered a felony. Undocumented immigrants frequently have to use false social security numbers to obtain work when they have no legal mechanisms to normalize their residency in the country. This situation has led proponents of sanctuary laws to analyze how overlapping local and state jurisdictions leads to legal loopholes that constrain the effects of sanctuary city laws.

Pressure from organized immigrants in Chicago to expand the protections offered by the city’s sanctuary policies led to the 2018 passage of the Trust Act by the Republican-controlled Illinois state congress. The Trust Act was the result of community activist group mobilizations in Chicago and in the Illinois state capitol. The organizations collected signatures and organized telephone banks in support of the initiative. Latino leaders in Chicago lobbied to convince other state representatives of the benefits of the Illinois Trust Act. The debates in the legislature as well as the voting and signing of the act were even broadcast live through migrant social networks.

The Illinois Trust Act (2017) prohibits investigating, reviewing, detaining or arresting anyone in Illinois on the main suspicion of being an undocumented immigrant. It states that no state authority will collaborate with immigration enforcement. The construction of any new immigration detention centers in the state is also prohibited. Likewise, a clause was included to prevent the use of local funding for immigration enforcement activities.

Furthermore, in 2018, the combined efforts and massive mobilization of immigrants in Chicago led to two even stronger complementary laws. The Safe Zones Act (2017) prohibits ICE from operating in sensitive areas such as public offices, libraries, schools and hospitals anywhere in the state. The Anti-Registry Program Act (2018) prohibits the creation of lists and databases in the state based on ethnicity and immigration status.

California is another important example of a sanctuary state; it is important due to a historical process and a contemporary process. The former refers to how California went from being a conservative state to a progressive state in a few decades, and how this is reflected in its immigration policy. The anti-immigrant impact of Proposition 187 in 1994 has been erased by immigrant activism and the proliferation of Latinos participating in formal politics throughout the state. However, the current dynamics reflect differences between counties regarding local immigration policy. While some counties such as Orange and Anaheim have passed restrictive resolutions to discourage the settlement of immigrants, large metropolises such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Santa Ana have expanded and defended their sanctuary ordinances in federal courts. These large sanctuary cities have overshadowed the anti-immigrant counties and have turned California into a sanctuary state.

In 2013, California passed the first statewide Trust Act, legislation that vacated any other laws requiring local governments to cooperate with the immigration enforcement activities as well as any laws requiring local governments to allocate resources to prosecute immigrants. This provision allowed numerous cities in California to pass sanctuary laws following Donald Trump’s election. According to Santa Ana police chiefs, “The current federal immigration law will cause a deterioration in relationships with the foreign-born community, relationships that have taken a lot of time and effort to build” (Santa Ana City Council press conference; from field notes in September 2016).

The California sanctuary law (California Values Act, 2017) became effective in 2018, establishing schools, courts and hospitals as safe areas for immigrants; that is, ICE cannot operate in any of these socially sensitive spaces. The California Values Act also explicitly prohibits the use of local resources in immigration enforcement. Likewise, local police can only cooperate in federal investigations of human trafficking, drugs and cybersecurity issues. This California sanctuary law has produced the most opposition, to the extent that its opponents placed mock signs at state borders that read “Welcome to California. Official Sanctuary State. Felons, Illegals and MS13 Welcome! Democrats need the votes!”

Unlike Illinois, the sanctuary state of California restricts cities from cooperating with ICE, but it does not allow autonomy for its cities. The Illinois case also includes major exceptions for criminal cases, while California does not allow police cooperation when the ultimate goal requires application of immigration laws. The most powerful aspect of the Illinois law is that it prohibits creating lists and databases based on immigration status and race. Undoubtedly, both states illustrate how the spectrum of sanctuary policies can lead to extremely different responses: from opposing federal policy despite the threat of legal action to closing protection loopholes and to completely changing the police’s relationship with mixed-status communities.

The examples of sanctuary states illustrate the future vertical scalability of strategies that can curb the effects of anti-immigrant policies on the vitality of their cities. However, horizontal scalability has also been seen in the expansion of sanctuary cities to new horizons. Currently at the forefront are ordinances and policies that create digital sanctuaries. This refers to the responsible use of information, especially regarding the collection of sensitive biometric data and information on legal status.

Immigrant activists and local governments have realized that ICE can access sensitive information about immigrants collected by the city for identification procedures, educational services, health services, and more. Officially, ICE can access the databases of local law enforcement, the department of motor vehicles, license plate readers, and work and student visa registries. The personal information protection laws of the United States indicate that for foreigners, agencies may triangulate among themselves to gather information. These practices have produced local pressure to create laws and policies on digital sanctuaries.

In 2017, an undocumented immigrant in Chicago named Wilmer Catalán was accused of being a gang member. Immigration officials extracted data on immigration status from a database belonging to the city.7 A matter of simple association and improper registration caused ICE to list him as a high-priority immigrant. ICE then asked local police for support, and a violent arrest was conducted at his home. Chicago activists pressured the city government to demand an explanation from ICE and the city police of the criteria for creating criminal and gang databases, as it had been found that in California and Illinois, even two-year-old children were listed in these databases (California State Auditor, 2016). In response to these events, the city of Portland yielded to activist pressure in 2017 and agreed to erase all gang-related databases, acknowledging that there was no precise methodology or solid evidence for including people in these databases.

At the same time, immigrant activists learned from broad participation in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that providing personal information to government agencies can be a double-edged sword, given the uncertainty about program continuity (Cruz, 2016). Along the same lines, immigrant leaders expressed widespread disappointment among their communities about the public programs offered to mitigate the disadvantages of being an undocumented immigrant, such as municipal identification cards.

For example, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights claimed that immigrants do not want to apply for programs such as municipal identification cards or even for programs to become naturalized citizens because they believe that their data could be accessed through public program databases. A Latino city council member from Chicago responded to this in an interview:

I recommend that all residents apply to the Municipal ID program. We are evaluating options to delete databases, but we cannot currently ensure that the city can pass digital sanctuary laws. However, the Chicago city government will be responsible for protecting the data of all its residents (Cárdenas, 2017).

The activists want their cities to follow the example of the sanctuary city of New York, where they delete individual records and anonymize the central database, which is also encrypted.

So, although we do not have a specific example of a digital sanctuary, the development of sanctuary policies is heading in this direction. There are two areas of progress in this matter. First, there are prohibitions on creating records based on race, immigration status or religion that are currently in place throughout the sanctuary state of Illinois and in the sanctuary city of San Francisco. Second is the responsible management of program data, such as municipal identification data in New York City.

Cities under pressure from their civic organizations continue to look for ways to protect immigrants instead of conforming to today’s federal anti-immigrant stance. A recent event has spurred discussion about the limits of sanctuary protections, as an activist explained:

The mayor of Oakland recently alerted residents of her city about an ICE operation in northern California, which probably prevented some 800 arrests. That is the least we expect from our representatives; we want them to share the information they have with the community (Activista III, 2017).

These dynamics illustrate the uncertain course that sanctuary policies will follow, as they increase in number in response to political hostility. That is, comprehensive federal immigration reform would probably make sanctuary policies unnecessary. However, the political trend seems to be going in the opposite direction; therefore, vertical and horizontal scalability is still viable for pro-immigrant cities.


We can observe several trends in this analysis of the practices of the most representative sanctuary cities described in this article. To summarize this cross-case study, the procedural aspects of the relationship with ICE were addressed first, followed by analyses of local practices and immigration policies.

None of the rhetorical, informal and welcoming sanctuaries have signed agreements with ICE (Department of Homeland Security, 1996, section 287g), which has allowed cities to defend themselves when state agencies attempt to force their collaboration in immigration enforcement. This has also been useful for winning legal battles. For example, in July 2018, six states and New York City filed a complaint against President Trump’s threats to withhold anti-crime funds (Byrne grants) for cities that refuse to cooperate with ICE (Robbins, 2018). Likewise, the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the sanctuary ordinances of San Francisco and Santa Clara over a challenge by the Department of Justice (Thanawala, 2018).

An important aspect of the relationship with ICE is that local police in cities with sanctuary laws do not report the immigration status of detainees. In informal sanctuaries, minimum deadlines are established, and bureaucratic delays often cause announcements to expire. Another common denominator is that all three types of sanctuaries have multiple exceptions, all related to public safety. This is due to their high crime rates caused by structural and other issues not exclusive to immigration. With respect to local immigration management practices, sanctuary cities do not collect immigration status. Welcoming sanctuaries definitively prohibit this practice, while in some circumstances, rhetorical sanctuaries also prohibit it. Informal sanctuaries do not have protocols in this regard, but they are not encouraged to systematically collect this information.

However, the issues that involve structural and dynamic reforms of distributive justice tend to remain in the discursive realm in rhetorical sanctuaries and are not part of the informal sanctuaries.

The issue of fair and universal access to city services for all residents without exception is a study in contrasts. Informal sanctuaries are limited by their circumstances - if procedural reforms cannot be made, they are less likely to carry out distributive justice reforms to benefit immigrants. The rhetorical sanctuaries establish equal access clauses, but there is no structure to implement them because adequate budgets are not available. Regarding welcoming cities, the adoption of sanctuary laws was accompanied by implementation and assimilation policies such as funding of legal assistance, “know your rights” campaigns and citizenship workshops. However, the effectiveness of these measures will depend both on the ability of activists to press for accountability and adequate funding and on the prevailing political climate.

The dynamics seen in these cases have enabled us to evaluate the hypotheses that guided this research and that also support the conclusions of this study:

First, local immigration-related policies agree on the need to mitigate the effects of anti-immigrant policies at other levels of government and to publicize the progressive nature of local politics. However, their content and implementation have different practical effects on public safety and the assimilation of immigrants.

Second, the nature of sanctuary policies is shaped in large part by the pressure that local activism can exert in favor of adopting and expanding these policies. This is because activist groups see what is being done in other places and expose the deficiencies of current practices.

Third, the analysis of political trajectories enabled us to trace the dynamics behind the sanctuary policies that are more oriented towards political protest. The leading sanctuary practices and those with the highest levels of political opposition are connected with local movements, but they also protect their access to funding and their political autonomy. This is aimed at balancing the priorities and agendas of both their native populations and their immigrant minorities.


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1 Temporary Protected Status (tps) is a temporary visa for a list of specific, eligible nationalities who cannot return to their countries due to an ongoing military conflict, a natural disaster, or other extraordinary condition (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2019).

2 In fact, this is the first time that the US media used the term “sanctuary city”, although a New York Times article (“San Francisco Approves”, 1985) pointed out that Los Angeles, Berkeley, Chicago, St. Paul and Cambridge had previously signed similar resolutions.

3 This case garnered national media attention because Kate Steinle’s killer is an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record who was never reported to ice due to San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinances. This case has been used by opponents of sanctuary cities, including President Trump, who invited the victim’s relatives as guests of honor to the 2019 State of the Union address to justify his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

4 Activist Rodolfo “Corky” González, one of the most important Chicano leaders ,was born in Denver and founded the Chicano Youth Conference there to demand support for the city's Mexican-American communities.

5 Immigrants represent more than 20% of the workforce in Denver, working in local industries such as construction, transportation, education and recreation. They also contribute a billion dollars each year to health services, which many cannot use as they lack the necessary documents.

6 Rapid response networks are community initiatives that consist of networks of volunteers who quickly go to places where ice raids or arrests have been reported to monitor due process and respect for the fundamental rights of immigrants.

7 According to The Chicago Tribune, the criteria used by Chicago police to include an individual in the gang database are tattoos and the use of symbols associated with gangs, family connections (surnames), association (residence), and other subjective aspects (Serrato, 2017).

Estefanía Cruz Lera
Mexican, PhD in Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona; Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees in International Studies from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM). She currently works as a full-time researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones sobre América del Norte (CISAN) of the UNAM. Areas of research: incorporation of political minorities and the US political system. Recent publications: Cruz, E. (2019). La gobernanza de las migraciones transnacionales china y mexicana hacia Estados Unidos: Los nexos entre la Diáspora y el Estado creativo para el codesarrollo. Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales, 64(236), 21-48.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Atribución no comercial 4.0 Internacional.