What immigrants need to know about U.S. sanctuary cities in 2023

For immigrants, the mystery surrounding sanctuary cities can lead to logistical issues.

People may think they’re protected in ways they aren’t or might not know where to turn if problems with law enforcement occur.

In this Remitly guide, we’ll explore what these cities are, how they work, and how they can help immigrants.

What is a sanctuary city?

The term “sanctuary city” often appears in the news, but most people don’t fully understand it. This term refers to a municipality that may limit its cooperation with the federal government’s efforts to enforce immigration law. The movement for sanctuary cities in the United States arose during the 1980s, when the federal government refused asylum to refugees arriving from politically unstable Central American countries.

In 1982, several churches in the Southwestern U.S. publicly declared themselves sanctuaries for refugees. San Francisco followed their lead in 1985, passing the symbolic “City of Refuge” resolution, prohibiting the use of city funds to assist federal immigration enforcement.

Since then, many other cities, counties, and states have passed ordinances to defend immigrants and refugees. These types of cities protect immigrants from persecution and inform them about their rights.

In some cases, they may issue immigrants official documentation and identification to help them assimilate into society. Local governments may also offer websites and apps for immigrants to assist them with finding healthcare services, education, and legal help.

As of October 2022, the Center for Immigration studies had identified more than 180 sanctuary cities and counties in the U.S.

List of sanctuary cities

Top immigrant-friendly sanctuary cities in the U.S. - Chicago, IL

These cities vary in size, and there are municipalities and counties across the continental U.S. with sanctuary policies. Cities that either declared sanctuary status or are in a sanctuary county include:

  • Alexandria, VA
  • Baltimore, MD
  • Boston, MA
  • Charlotte, NC
  • Chicago, IL
  • Columbus, OH
  • Denver, CO
  • Detroit, MI
  • Hartford, CT
  • Iowa City, IA
  • Jackson, MS
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Memphis, TN
  • Minneapolis, MN
  • Montpelier, VT
  • Newark, NJ
  • New Orleans, LA
  • New York City, NY
  • Oklahoma City, OK
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Pittsburgh, PA
  • Portland, OR
  • Providence, RI
  • Raleigh, NC
  • San Diego, CA
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Seattle, WA
  • Washington, DC

How do sanctuary cities work?

Each city establishes its own laws and regulations. As a result, the specific details of how things work within each city vary. One thing sanctuaries have in common is that they limit resources provided to federal immigration officers attempting to apprehend undocumented immigrants.

Arrests of undocumented immigrants in non-sanctuary cities

In a non-sanctuary city, local law enforcement usually partners with federal agents. If the police arrest an undocumented immigrant, local law enforcement officers will typically hold the person until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can come to the jail and retrieve them.

To do this, the law enforcement agency notifies ICE that they have an undocumented suspect in custody and request a detainer. If the detainer request is approved, the person will stay in jail.

There are some limits to detainers. State or local laws may limit how long a person can be in custody. In this case, the police will hold the suspect for the maximum time, and if ICE fails to arrive, the person will be released.

Arrests of undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities

In these cities, undocumented immigrants are held as long as any other suspect. Law enforcement won’t usually contact ICE to tell them about an  undocumented immigrant in custody.

The undocumented immigrant can leave detention if the charges are cleared or dropped. The person may also be released if they pay bail or complete a jail sentence.

How sanctuary city policies benefit law enforcement

During debates about this type of cities in the U.S., the benefits of sanctuary status for law enforcement usually fall through the cracks. Although cities adopt sanctuary status to show they’re welcoming to immigrants, goodwill usually isn’t the primary reason for the move.

Law enforcement is most effective when the local community cooperates. Police can’t investigate crimes if witnesses don’t talk to them, and they can’t stop crimes in progress if no one reports them.

Unfortunately, undocumented immigrants and their relatives may be fearful of the police. They may hesitate to call emergency services or answer a police officer’s questions, even about unrelated matters.

These cities offer people peace of mind that interactions with the police won’t result in detention. This status builds trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement agencies so officers can better serve their cities.

los angeles

What protections are afforded to people in sanctuary cities?

The specific protections afforded to people living in these types of cities in the U.S. varies. Each city has its own laws and regulations. Below are some of the potential protections afforded to people in these cities.

Protection from extended detention

In most areas, undocumented immigrants receive protection from prolonged detention. If arrested, law enforcement won’t hold them beyond the time it takes to clear the charges, post bail established by a judge, or serve a sentence.

Reduced local involvement with police raids

Some sanctuary city policies go further. Local law enforcement may refuse to assist with local ICE raids, or they may not offer requested support like additional manpower.

This fact doesn’t mean ICE raids don’t occur in these types of cities. It simply means that the local police won’t be involved.

Lack of immigration detention centers

Some sanctuary cities and counties prohibit ICE from establishing detention centers within their borders. When governments impose this rule, ICE officers may have to travel further to apprehend an undocumented immigrant.

Increased privacy

Some sanctuary cities protect people from questions about their immigration status when applying for services. Others limit gathering immigration data from people.

For example, a person may not need to give their immigration status when registering their children for a public school in a sanctuary city. Or, the school district may only be allowed to ask if the child is a U.S. citizen. If the answer is no, the school official can’t ask for the specific immigration status.

Sanctuary city laws may also limit how much information government agencies share with federal officials. For example, they may not provide immigration enforcement with statistics regarding how many immigrants live in a particular neighborhood or attend a local school.

Protection from ICE officials while in jail

Some sanctuary cities and counties won’t allow ICE agents to enter a jail or prison without a warrant. In these areas, immigration officials must convince a judge to grant a search or arrest warrant before entering. If the judge issues the warrant, undocumented immigrants can be removed from jail or prison by ICE.

What sanctuary status doesn’t mean

Many people have the impression that a sanctuary city is a safe harbor for immigrants. However, the idea that someone living in a sanctuary city receives complete protection from federal immigration officers is false.

Undocumented immigrants living in these cities can still be detained by ICE and deported.

Understanding immigrant protections

Because laws governing these types of cities in the U.S. vary greatly, immigrants must become familiar with the protections in the places they live.

Don’t assume that you have a set of guaranteed protections if you live in a sanctuary city. Check the county or city website to learn more about your local laws.

What is the relationship between the federal government and sanctuary cities?

In these cities, the federal government still has jurisdiction over immigration issues. Sanctuary laws don’t prevent ICE agents from entering a city or apprehending undocumented immigrants. People living in these cities are still subject to the same immigration laws as individuals living in other places.

The difference between sanctuary cities and non-sanctuary cities is the level of cooperation. Law enforcement officers in a sanctuary city will either not partner with ICE or will only assist them a little. In non-sanctuary cities, law enforcement usually works with ICE.

What happens when there is a disagreement between a sanctuary city and the federal government?

These types of cities aren’t illegal in the U.S. The federal government can’t stop cities and counties from establishing sanctuary policies.

However, the federal government’s executive branch has sought to punish or retaliate against these types of cities. In January 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that blocked these types of cities from receiving federal funding.

Ultimately, a judge blocked the executive order, ruling that it violated federal law. President Joe Biden rescinded the order in April 2021.

These historical events show how conflicts between sanctuary cities and the federal government get resolved. The U.S. court system is responsible for ruling on the legality of sanctuary city policies and the federal government’s attempts to restrict them.

Immigrants who believe the federal government violated their rights as a resident of a sanctuary city can take advantage of legal resources to help them navigate the court system. Local affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Southern Poverty Law Center are good places to start.

Why are sanctuary cities in the news more often recently?

These types of cities have been in the news more frequently over the last few years as politicians leverage immigration to draw support. In 2023, North Dakota passed a law banning sanctuary cities, even though there were none in the state then.

Acts of political theater are also drawing attention to these types of cities. In 2022, Governor Ron Desantis of Florida and Governor Greg Abbott of Texas began transporting immigrants to sanctuary cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Although the governors said they simply require sanctuary cities to assist with immigration, critics argue that these politicians wanted to stir up support for their reelection campaigns.

Unfortunately, discussions about these cities aren’t often factual. That’s why it’s essential to use trusted sources like government websites to obtain information about sanctuary city policies.


How might sanctuary cities change in 2023?

In 2023, these cities may face legislative challenges at the federal level. With the Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, there is an increased chance that bills restricting sanctuary cities may be put forth. However, any legislation would also need to be passed by the U.S. Senate, where they are unlikely to succeed.

The Biden administration has asked sanctuary cities to consider increasing cooperation between local and federal agencies. In February 2022, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a group of mayors he hoped that localities that previously refused all assistance to ICE would reconsider. As of January 2023, no sanctuary cities have reconsidered.

Key takeaways for immigrants

Both immigrants living in sanctuary cities and those who advocate for them must stay informed about laws and regulations. Learn more about the sanctuary policies in your city or county to understand what protections are currently in place. 

Stay up-to-date on the latest news about immigration laws and sanctuary policies. One easy way to do this is to set up alerts through a news app or site like Google News. You can enable notifications or subscribe to emails with the latest stories related to keywords like “sanctuary city” and “immigration in CITY NAME.”

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