What is a “Sanctuary City”?

With South Miami ready to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of newly signed law that bans sanctuary cities, it’s the perfect time to review what exactly a “sanctuary city” is.

The best way to understand the term “sanctuary city” is through an example.

Let’s say a cop pulls a driver over for speeding. The driver has an unpaid speeding ticket and missed his day in court. The cop arrests the driver and books him into the local jail. As part of the booking process, the driver is fingerprinted. The fingerprints are then sent to the FBI and to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement also known as ICE – it should be noted that fingerprints are sent to ICE regardless of if the jail is located in a sanctuary city or not.

If the driver turns out to be an unauthorized immigrant, ICE will send a request to the jail to hold the driver for an additional 48 hours. During that 48-hour period, ICE would come to the jail to retrieve the driver and begin the deportation process.

In that example, the concept of “sanctuary city” does not become relevant until ICE sends local law enforcement the detainer request. Once they do, if the police officer is in a sanctuary city, the police officer can choose to ignore the request and release the driver as scheduled. ICE cannot force local law enforcement to comply with the request and police officers may not want to deport every immigrant who is arrested for a traffic violation because they would lose trust in the immigrant community and have a more difficult time solving crimes.

While ICE can’t force local law enforcement to comply, police officers may be pressured to do so through other means.

Consider Travis County in Texas. In February 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott cut nearly $2 million in law enforcement funds for Travis County when the local Sheriff refused to reverse a policy that prohibited deputies from asking individuals about their immigration status and from holding unauthorized immigrants who have completed their time for minor crimes.

Florida is the latest State to tackle the sanctuary city issue. In June of 2019, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that banned sanctuary cities. The law requires local and state law enforcement to honor detainer requests. However, it was recently reported that the city of South Miami will join the Southern Poverty Law Center and the University of Miami to challenge the law.