Background of Sanctuary Cities in The United States

Sean Rush

            What are Sanctuary Cities in The United States? Today, Sanctuary Cities are used as a misnomer for sanctuary jurisdiction. Sanctuary “Cities” in the United States are cities, counties, or states that implement at least one policy that limits local or state law enforcement resources towards federal organizations, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in solving immigration issues. In the United States, there are currently around 300 sanctuary jurisdictions. A sanctuary city is important to both undocumented immigrants and the community. For undocumented immigrants, a sanctuary city will protect an them from any inquiries towards their legal status. For example, if an undocumented person is driving over the speed limit, an officer would not be allowed to check their legal status. For the community, it allows local law enforcement to focus on sustaining public safety and not blur responsibilities with federal law enforcement officials.   

            To provide some background, The United States has had a long history of providing sanctuary to those vulnerable. Going as far back as the 1850s, Kristie Eshelman writes that sanctuary cities had a start in northern states, who implemented personal liberty laws to protect those from the Fugitive Slave Act (2020, Eshelman). However, the sanctuary movement as we know it today started in the 1980s. In their book, “Sanctuary Cities in International Perspectives: Migration, Citizenship and Social Movements,” Randy Lippert and Sean Rahaag write about sanctuary cities as a response to the refugee crisis, which emerged from civil wars in Central America at the time. They originated from faith based organizations that saw cities as a space of sanctuary for these refugees. The Reagan Administration declared that one million Salvadorians and Guatemalans were “economic migrants, making them at risk for deportation. In response, faith based organizations created the sanctuary movement to defend them. San Francisco became a City of Refuge for Central American refugees in 1985, and by 1989, an Administrative Code was declared to prohibit local police, city and county staff from “inquiring or disseminating information about a person’s immigration status unless it is affirmatively required by federal or state statute, regulation or court decision (Lippert & Rahaag, 2013, pg.225).”

            For sanctuary cities, what used to be a movement built by religious groups, has now become a more systemic component of local government. This transformation has cultivated a heated public discourse on the function of these jurisdictions. “…critics of sanctuary, who have fuelled a political discourse linking sanctuary to the harbor of criminals, local government failure to enforce the law, and threats to national security (Lippert & Rahaag, 2013, pg.228).” Criticism towards sanctuary cities has been a direct response to 9/11 and the way current government inquires about those living in the country without recognition. Today, sanctuary cities are fighting to operate. In 2017, Trump signed an executive order calling on sanctuary cities to comply with federal law or be defunded (America’s Voice, 2019). I hope that my research on the functions and risks of sanctuary cities will make it possible to move past the discourse and come up with real solutions to this issue. 


Eshelman K. What is a sanctuary city? CE Think Tank Newswire. Apr 16 2020. Available from:

“Immigration 101: What Is a Sanctuary City?,” October 9, 2019. Available from:

 “The Birth of a Sanctuary-City: a History of Governmental Sanctuary in San Francisco.” In Sanctuary Practices in International Perspectives, 223–236. Routledge, 2013.

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