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What are “sanctuary cities”?

If you’ve been reading the news lately, you’ve probably seen the term “sanctuary city” as part of the national debate on immigration. But what are sanctuary cities, exactly? Do they exist in California? And what do they mean for you?

Though there isn’t a strict definition of what “sanctuary city” actually means, here are some things that are usually true and where that distinction comes from.

Less Cooperation With Immigration Authorities

Cities that have branded themselves as “sanctuary cities” (or been given the name by others) are places that have decided to cooperate less with federal immigration enforcement agencies. Here’s what that can mean:

  • City police officers won’t ask about your immigration status if they stop you or detain you.
  • City police officers won’t share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), except in the case of serious crimes.
  • City police officers won’t hold undocumented immigrants in jail longer than their sentence, which would allow ICE to take them into custody and deport them.

The exact set of laws can vary from city to city, though, which people often find confusing.

California: Sanctuary Cities, Sanctuary State

California is known as a “sanctuary state,” which means that guidelines like the ones above exist for the entire state. However, some cities in California have passed their own laws saying that they’ll work with ICE agents after all, contradicting what the governor and state legislature have said. Knowing who is enforcing which laws is often difficult, which can make undocumented immigrants afraid for their safety.

Different Laws: Cities, States, Federal Government

This lack of cooperation between cities, states and the federal government comes from the fact that they all have different laws. Laws at the federal level are intended to be applicable everywhere, while state laws are applicable in the state itself, and city laws in the city. However, when a city makes a law saying they won’t enforce certain federal laws, they are telling the federal government that they will have to use their own federal enforcement agents.

Deportation Is Still A Risk

A common myth is that ICE can’t deport you from sanctuary cities, but that’s not true. ICE agents can still take you into custody—they just won’t get any help from the local law enforcement.

If you feel confused by all of this, you’re not alone. Many undocumented immigrants are in the same position and don’t know where they’re safe and where they’re not. If you have questions, an experienced immigration lawyer can help.

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  • American Immigration Lawyers Association
  • State Bar of California | California Board of Legal Specialization
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  • Orange County Bar Association
  • Irvine Chamber