What Does It Mean To Be A 'Sanctuary City'?

Feb 2, 2017

President Donald Trump’s promise to crack down on illegal immigration is spurring cities across Washington to weigh calling themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented people.

Leaders in Tacoma, for instance, decided against adopting the “sanctuary city” label this week. They feared the Trump administration would take away millions in federal funding, as the president has promised.

The term “sanctuary city” is often a topic of emotional debate. But what does it mean?

There’s no legal definition, but there’s a general understanding. And what matters is whether local police play an active role in enforcing federal immigration law.

In a sanctuary city, police won't ask someone about their immigration status. And they generally won’t hold someone in jail just because they’re suspected of breaking immigration law.

Seattle University law professor Won Kidane said sanctuary cities are essentially saying: "Federal government, come and enforce your own laws. If you do that, there's nothing we can do about it, but we're not enthusiastic supporters of this enforcement effort."

In this way, Tacoma could already be called a sanctuary city, even if it doesn’t declare itself one. A Tacoma police spokeswoman said the department does not inquire about people's immigration statuses or detain suspected immigration offenders on behalf of federal authorities.

Kidane says the term “sanctuary” can give the wrong impression, so it’s not surprising some cities don’t want the label.

“The kind of sanctuary these states are giving, these cities are giving, is not sheltering, giving sanctuary to hard-core criminals, offenders, murderers and all that," he said. "But when you say ‘sanctuary’ that’s the meaning I think a lot of people attribute to it.”

Sanctuary cities aren't sheltering serious offenders, he said. For instance, if an undocumented person is convicted of murder in a sanctuary city, they’re still going to be deported if and when they get out of prison.

The city of Burien this month effectively declared itself a sanctuary city, but dropped the term “sanctuary city” from the law.

The city of Bellingham is reportedly considering its own sanctuary declaration. But it comes with a risk.

Take Seattle. The mayor says his “sanctuary city” could lose $85 million in annual federal funding under Trump's executive order.

Tacoma will continue calling itself a “welcoming city" for immigrants.