By: Richard Hanus, Esq.

April 6, 2024

Most Americans have heard about sanctuary cities, but few really understand what they truly are. I come to this conclusion based on the way this term, along with “open borders”, is thrown around in various media outlets and by certain politicians to strategically rev up emotion among their audience. In today’s world, a 2 sentence tweet carries the same weight as a multi page newspaper article of the pre-social media age, and references to sanctuary cities tend to convey an outsized, inaccurate, message.

Toward understanding what a Sanctuary City is, let’s start with what a Sanctuary City is not.

It is not a city where an undocumented foreign national can take refuge to shield themselves from federal authorities, deportation or enforcement of our nation’s laws, including immigration laws. It is not a city where an undocumented foreign national receives unlimited human services and benefits. It is not a city federal law enforcement officials are prevented from entering to enforce our laws, including to arrest and initiate deportation proceedings against undocumented foreign nationals. It is not a city where an undocumented foreign national is allowed to act lawlessly and without legal consequence.  It is not a city where undocumented foreign nationals receive special access to the kinds of public services that are typically offered to undocumented foreign nationals living in most any other city or town across the U.S.  It is not a city under a special obligation to provide services to new foreign national arrivals seeking the protection of our asylum laws.  In other words, a sanctuary city is rarely the kind of city many media outlets and political campaigns portray them to be.

What a Sanctuary City is

Firstly, the term is not as much a legal reference as it is a brand. These cities take pride being known as “welcoming” to all immigrants regardless of their legal status, and providing all foreign nationals a sense of safety as members of a community. Officials in sanctuary cities do not question immigrants about their immigration status when it comes to providing city services, protecting them from crime or in most any other context. These cities explicitly proclaim they will not assist federal authorities when it comes to executing on immigration enforcement operations against noncriminal, undocumented immigrants. Police departments in sanctuary cities will not unilaterally contact federal immigration authorities when encountering an undocumented foreign national with a clean criminal background, i.e. otherwise law abiding undocumented foreign nationals will be left alone.

Image vs. Reality

For the past four decades our nation’s interior enforcement of U.S. immigration law has been mainly focused on efforts to deport foreign nationals with criminal records. That is, foreign nationals who enter the U.S. without a visa, or overstay their visa, and who are otherwise law abiding members of our society generally remain here under the radar of U.S. immigration authorities. This policy, to varying degrees, has been embraced by every Democratic and Republican administration since Ronald Reagan – and has led to the accumulation of an undocumented population of more than 12 million. To be sure, the vast majority of this population are hard-working and otherwise law abiding, members of our communities. They raise families, pay taxes and play key roles in almost all sectors of our economy, including mowing our lawns, caring for our elderly and children, washing our dishes, cleaning our hotel rooms, building our homes and staffing our factories.

Admit It:  We Love Our Undocumented Workers

For the past 40 years or so, our society has, in most ways, adopted a policy of a de facto amnesty when it comes to noncriminal undocumented foreign nationals, from major metropolitan areas to small towns, and regardless of the sanctuary city label. To be sure, residents of non-sanctuary cities face not much, if any, greater chance of being placed in deportation proceedings than residents of sanctuary cities. Given our approach to immigration enforcement, the size of our undocumented population and the extent to we have grown to absorb, rely and value this demographic, our nation’s relationship with our undocumented foreign nationals can best be described as a love story.

In the meantime, states like Texas are understandably crying out for federal help in managing their own peculiar border and immigration related crises. Most notably, is their high profile, constitutionally questionable response, enactment of state laws to criminalize violations of our federal immigration laws. Many Republicans and even some Democrats are yelling “open borders”, at a time when migrant camps are popping up in parks and open spaces in the middle of our cities, all as a result of our current administration’s failure to establish and manage an orderly, humane process for legitimate asylum seekers.

More than ever, honest, fact based conversations are hard to come by when it comes to most hot button political topics, especially immigration. Our limited attention spans and divisive, fear based politics fueled by social media make it this way. But in truth, contrary to the binary framing of our most complicated societal and political issues, advocacy for immigrant rights does not mean being in favor of open borders. Advocacy for the rule of law does not mean you are heartless and uncompassionate to asylum seekers or immigrants. We must join in agreeing that the need for immigration law enforcement is no less of a truth than acknowledging that immigrants and immigration are big pluses to our society or that foreign nationals escaping threats to their life and freedom deserve to be considered for protection under our asylum laws. Further, we must walk the walk, and not just talk the talk, in creating more legal immigration avenues to address the aspirations of ambitious foreign nationals and U.S. employers desperate to staff operations.

In sum, when it comes to conversations about our nation’s border and undocumented population, there will continue to be little correlation between the true meaning of terms like sanctuary city, and how they are used in political discourse. Turning truth on its head and maximizing a message’s polarizing value has sadly become the norm, especially when it comes to solving our nation’s immigration. challenges.

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PUBLISHED April 6, 2024– “IMMIGRATION LAW FORUM” Copyright © 2024, By Law Offices of Richard Hanus, Chicago, Illinois