The CRS Issues Report on Sanctuary Cities

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has issued a report on sanctuary cities, addressing the issue of how to define a sanctuary city, specific limitations that states and localities have placed on immigration enforcement activity, and measures that the federal government has taken to counteract sanctuary policies.

The CRS report comes at a time when the Trump administration has threatened to withhold federal funds from jurisdictions that continue sanctuary policies. These jurisdictions must now consider what is at stake, complicated by the lack of an accepted definition of a sanctuary city. Some police chiefs and mayors have stated that they comply fully with federal law, and simply direct their law enforcement officers not to perform the duties of federal immigration authorities.

According to the CRS report, there is no formal definition of a sanctuary jurisdiction, but such policies generally fall into three categories. They “don’t ask”, “don’t tell,” and “don’t enforce,” which bars local police from asking a person about their immigration status, sharing certain information with federal immigration authorities and providing those authorities with assistance.

The Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Arizona v. United States reaffirmed that the federal government has “broad, undoubted power” over the status of aliens and the subject of immigration. While the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution means that Congress can preempt state law, the Supreme Court has cautioned that not every state or local enactment dealing with immigration is per se preempted by the federal government’s exclusive power over immigration.

The policies of sanctuary cities grew out of a movement in the 1980s of church groups that provided refuge or sanctuary to undocumented immigrants from Central America fleeing political violence. Major cities such as New York and Chicago now have sanctuary policies.

The CRS report also addressed the Executive Order 13768, signed by President Trump on January 25, 2017. The order seeks to encourage state and local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement and disincentivize sanctuary policies. It instructs the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to ensure that sanctuary jurisdictions are not eligible to receive federal grants. Two California entities have filed suit seeking to halt the implementation of the executive order, on the ground that it violates the Tenth Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from “commandeering” state or local police forces to enforce federal law.