“Sanctuary” Information

What is a sanctuary city? What does the term sanctuary mean? This page seeks to provide some background information, and then examples from around the country of many ways people provide some degree of reassurance to noncitizens in their communities, in their workplaces, in their schools, and beyond.

Sanctuary: A Brief Background

The term borrows from the tradition of places of worship providing safety to people in harm’s way; the state could not enter a place of worship to arrest someone.

In the 1980s, the term emerged to define the response protecting  refugees from Central American civil wars. The Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s involved churches and synagogues providing shelter, lawyers providing pro bono legal representation, and national advocacy aimed at fully bringing these refugees under the protections of the 1980 Refugee Act. In Maryland, Takoma Park became a sanctuary city during this period.

“Sanctuary” re-emerged in the late 1990s and 2000s in response to the increased use of criminal justice systems to enforce immigration laws. Cities across the country directed their law enforcement officers not to inquire into immigration status in the course of their duties.

Today, the most common form of sanctuary are policies that focus on “detainers.” This gets technical, but it is important to understand how narrow this particular issue is. The federal government’s immigration enforcement authorities (DHS’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)) may issue a request to local law enforcement to hold a noncitizen up to 48 hours beyond the time they would normally be released (for example, if they would be released on bail before trial, or at the end of serving a sentence). This request is a “detainer.” When a jurisdiction honors the detainer, ICE has 48 hours to collect the individual and transfer them into ICE custody. The argument for detainers is that it helps the federal government identify noncitizens who may be removable, and leverages local law enforcement to achieve that goal. The argument against detainers is that it requires local law enforcement to violate the Fourth Amendment by keeping people locked up longer than the law requires; local law enforcement sometimes also cite the fiscal cost and liability that arise during the extra detention period.

Reasonable minds disagree on these policies, but it is essential to base the disagreement on a clear understanding of what is at issue. A jurisdiction that does not honor detainers is not giving criminals a free pass; the detainer only goes into effect once the criminal justice system has determined that the person has completed their sentence, or can be released before a trial (on bond or own their own recognizance) because they are not a danger to public safety.

For a recent op-ed on the limitations of sanctuary policies, please see this New York Times piece.

Some Current Examples

  • Limits upon use of detainers
    • This 2015 list links to the actual policies, across the country.
    • Prince George’s County does not honor detainers without a valid warrant.
    • Takoma Park does not assist in immigration-related investigations or arrests
    • Washington DC only complies with detainers where the individual was convicted of certain violent crimes.
    • Montgomery County requires a warrant before honoring a detainer.
    • Baltimore City honors detainers only in compliance with DHS’s own stated priorities for immigration enforcement (generally, more serious crimes)
    • For more Maryland jurisdictions, please see this report from the ACLU of Maryland, with links to the relevant documents
  • Limits upon information-sharing with the federal government more broadly
    • Takoma Park prohibits city officials “from assisting federal officials with the investigation and arrest of any person for civil or criminal violations,” promotes non-discrimination, and prohibits sharing immigration-related information with third parties except as required by law.
  • Resolutions Related to Our Schools
    • From Saint Paul, Minnesota, a resolution to protect students by (among other measures) resolving that “unless specifically required by law, board members, district employees, contractors, volunteers, and representatives will not use district resources solely for the purpose of detecting or assisting in the apprehension of persons whose only violation of law is or may be being an undocumented resident in the United States, or failing to produce documents authorizing residency in the United States.”
    • From University of Michigan a similar promise to uphold the rights of students, limiting disclosures about immigration status to those required by law. (In the case of universities, this often means that schools need to file certain paperwork to permit foreign students to obtain their student visas. “Required bylaw” would also include honoring valid warrants for information.)

Further Reading

ILRC Resources on Sanctuary