by Melissa L. Turcios, Associate, Wilkinson Barker, Knauer LLP
A couple of weeks ago, President Trump signed an executive order throttling federal funding to nearly 400 jurisdictions across the United States, so-called “sanctuary cities,” that through various policy mechanisms do not require their local law enforcement to affirmatively assist in executing federal immigration laws. “Sanctuary city” is an unfortunate misnomer, evoking a place where “bad hombres” run rampant, protected from the long arm of Johnny Law. This misguided view, reflected even in the text of the order itself, has resounded through conservative media: that sanctuary policies tie the hands of local law enforcement, create unbreachable havens for criminal aliens and endanger innocent Americans.
The truth, as it often is, is far more benign: nothing in sanctuary policies prevents federal enforcement actions. The federal government exercises exclusive jurisdiction over immigration enforcement, but state and local governments retain sovereign authority to assess local needs and priorities as part of their “police powers,” in order to provide for the health, safety, education and welfare of their communities. In order to ensure that already-limited local law enforcement resources are directed towards local crime prevention priorities, jurisdictions like the District of Columbia may, for example, refuse to hold undocumented immigrants in detention on the taxpayer dime past their scheduled release dates. “Being a sanctuary city means we are not an agent of the federal government,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser explained, “It means that our police can focus on serving D.C. residents — protecting and serving them — no matter their immigration status.” To preempt federal efforts to commandeer local police into serving as an auxiliary deportation force, other jurisdictions prevent local police from even asking about the immigration status of residents. Such policies have broad support among law enforcement officials and do not prevent any police department from pursuing or arresting an undocumented immigrant who commits a crime.