Writing Sample


Intergovernmental Relations: An Examination of Sanctuary Cities

Written: November 2019

Sanctuary Cities Paper PDF

When examining metropolitan policy, an important factor to consider is how a city’s policies are connected to federal and state-level policy. One of the most prominent examples of these intergovernmental relations involves the recent debate on sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities may vary in specific rules across the country, but generally, they are defined as cities that refuse to enforce or seek to limit the federal governments’ immigration laws (Benton, 141). This means that law enforcement in these cities does not always cooperate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, which fall under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). With the election of Donald Trump, fueling the rise of the debate on immigration, sanctuary cities found themselves in the spotlight. Just a few days into Trump’s presidency, he issued an executive order which attempted to restrict federal funds from established sanctuary cities. This paper will analyze the journal article, “The Legality of Sanctuary Cities” by Grace Benton and utilize various other sources to understand the legal arguments of sanctuary cities in terms of their intergovernmental relations.

In “The Legality of Sanctuary Cities,” Benton articulates the current state of sanctuary cities and explains why they are legal, based on prior court cases and recent rulings related to Trump’s attempted executive order. Before going into the specifics, Benton gives some history of sanctuary cities and describes what they look like in America today. Originally, areas of sanctuary in the United States were designated for religious freedom, in the early 1980s (Benton, 142). Then the idea of sanctuary cities was adapted for immigration refuge starting in 1987, in the state of Oregon (Benton, 142). Only a few states have fully adopted the sanctuary policy, as it is more commonly practiced in small jurisdictions and cities. In January 2017, there were as many as 564 sanctuary cities in the United States, which significantly increased from the 300 jurisdictions recorded just three months prior (Benton, 142). This number likely doubled due to Trump’s harsh rhetoric surrounding immigrants coupled with his threats to increase the presence of ICE.

The first reason Benton cites as a legal issue to Trump’s executive order is the Tenth Amendment—specifically the anti-commandeering doctrine (Benton, 143). The Tenth Amendment essentially gives states any powers not delegated in the U.S. Constitution. The Tenth Amendment also includes an anti-commandeering doctrine, which prevents states and cities from being coerced into enforcing federal statutes, like certain immigration policies (Bocetta). The author of an article focused on this very issue, Sam Bocetta, compares the immigration enforcement situation to the Fugitive Slave Act in the 1850s. These are similar situations because, in both instances, states and cities refused to abide by the federal policy which puts people’s lives in danger. During the Civil War era, free states like Massachusetts refused to capture and send slaves back, and in current times, sanctuary cities like Los Angeles, do not go out of their way to identify undocumented immigrants or inquire about one’s immigration status (Bocetta).

In addition to legal issues regarding the Tenth Amendment, Benton cites another main reason why Trump’s executive order faced complications—the longstanding practice of the separation of powers. When Trump announced his decision to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities, the metropolitan cities of San Francisco and Santa Clara, CA, both filed lawsuits to try to prevent this executive order from being executed. The cities’ lawsuit was successful in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, with a 2-1 vote (Cummings). Chief Judge Sidney Thomas explained in his majority opinion that it was unconstitutional for the Trump’s executive department to withhold funding to promote his political agenda when the power of the purse resides with Congress (Cummings). When the suit was heard in district court, Judge William Orrick also found the order to be a violation of the constitution’s separation of powers. He cited a gross overreach of power from the Trump administration and reinforced the need for checks on presidential power grabs of this nature (Cummings).

Conservatives who support Trump’s anti-immigration agenda were clearly unhappy with the court’s decision to uphold sanctuary cities. Republican, Jonathan Tobin, of the National Journal, wrote an article discussing how he fundamentally opposed cities defying federal immigration policy, yet respected the federalism of the Tenth Amendment. He even claimed to put his partisan anger aside and admit that Judge Orrick was correct in declaring Trump’s executive order and unconstitutional overreach (Tobin, 2). However, Tobin recognized that something along these lines had the potential to become law if executed through the proper process. Benton echoed this in her journal article, reiterating that sanctuary cities were acting within their legal rights, meaning the only way to legally cut off funding would be through congressional action (Benton, 143). If the government wants to restrict federal funds from sanctuary cities, the legislation must be enacted through congressional approval with specific requirements for cities. Additionally, this type of spending legislation can not be enacted retroactively to sanctuary cities, meaning they must be aware of the rules before they potentially have to suffer the consequences (Tobin, 2).

In Congress, many Republicans support policies that would attempt to strengthen the country’s immigration laws and make them more enforceable at the local level. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) wrote an op-ed to the Hill, describing his harsh, Trump-aligned stance on immigration. He cited his experience as mayor of Hazelton, PA, where two undocumented immigrants were accused of murdering a 29-year-old resident of the city (Barletta). However, the article fails to mention that these two men were acquitted of all charges because there was not enough evidence to corroborate the accusation (AP). Nonetheless, Barletta enforced some of the strictest immigration policies in his city, and then brought the immigration battle to Congress when he was elected in 2011 as the representative from Pennsylvania’s 11th congressional district (Barletta). His first bill in Congress, Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Act, attempted to restrict federal funding to sanctuary cities for at least one year if they fail to cooperate with federal immigration statutes. Rep. Barletta continues to introduce this bill to each new session, yet the legislation has never even made it out of committee (Barletta). Currently, there are three other bills in Congress attempting to limit funds to sanctuary cities, however, these are extremely unlikely to go anywhere given the Democratic majority in the House (Morse, 4)

Even though Congress is the only legal avenue for the implementation of funding cuts for sanctuary cities, it does not appear that Congress will take action on this issue anytime soon. Although many far-right Republicans have taken extreme stances on immigration and claimed to be protecting the safety of Americans, the data actually shows otherwise. Many large metropolitan cities are huge advocates for maintaining their standing as a sanctuary city because they feel this added sense of trust and security builds a stronger relationship between their communities and law enforcement (Morse, 2). In the journal article, Benton even cited a case where a judge explained that the public interest was better served when immigrant communities aren’t living in fear of the police (Benton, 143). According to the FBI crime data, which was analyzed by the political scientist, Tom Wong, the data actually reveals significantly lower crime rates in areas deemed sanctuary cities (Ingraham). Looking at the data from 2015, large metropolitan areas experienced an overall crime rate that scored 15% lower than their non-sanctuary counterparts (Ingraham). This means that for every 100,000 crime committed, the sanctuary cities committed 654 fewer crimes than the non-sanctuary cities (Ingraham). However, this data is just considering one type of city size. When looking at the overall figures for all jurisdictions, sanctuary cities only experienced one less homicide out of 100,000 than the non-sanctuary jurisdictions (Ingraham). Although this figure cannot be used as causation, the data is still statistically significant in showing that these sanctuary cities are not infested with crime, as Trump describes.

Although the numbers are fairly convincing in terms of the effectiveness of sanctuary cities, personal testimonies go a long way as well. For example, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which speaks for over 60 of the biggest urban regions in America, came out in favor of sanctuary city practices. In summary, the organization claimed that mandatory enforcement of federal immigration law would undermine the trust between law enforcement and the community and likely lead to an increase in crime because immigrants would be too scared to report crimes (Ingraham). Benton mentioned these issues as well in her journal article when presenting both sides of the sanctuary city debate (Benton, 140). Additionally, the International Association of Chiefs of Police echoed the same concerns of the Major Chiefs Association (Ingraham). The law enforcement on the ground in these cities understand the complexities of their environments. This is why the Tenth Amendment grants them an added sense of freedom to protect their communities as they see fit, which seems to be working out for the better.

In Donald Trump’s administration, there is no real way to tell which policy or community he will attack on any given day, so immigrants are forced to live in fear. Benton mentioned how these attacks will likely continue until the administration changes and even predicted a case along these lines to go to the Supreme Court (Benton, 144). Nevertheless, when Trump announced his executive order, the city mayors of these sanctuary cities refused to give in to fear. Mayors all over the country took to social media, TV, town halls, and more, just to let their communities know that they fully intended on continuing their position as a sanctuary city and were not scared of Trump’s baseless threats (Robbins). Some of the most outspoken mayors included De Blasio of New York City, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago (Robbins). Within an hour after the President issued an executive order, a group of legislators from California was already filing a lawsuit against the President’s latest action (Robbins). The cities were clear and united in the fact that they would not heed to the President’s political games when being a sanctuary city provided so much benefit to the health and safety of their communities.

Although the original journal article, “The Legality of Sanctuary Cities,” provided a baseline understanding of sanctuary cities as well as some legal issues in Trump’s executive order, there is still so much more to understand about the topic. Given the response from the city mayors as well as the police associations, it’s obvious that these sanctuary policies are truly engrained in these communities. Congress may have a better shot than the president at legally passing some type of ban on federal funding of sanctuary cities, yet massive outcry would occur once again. Caring about one’s community is not a Republican or Democratic issue—it’s a human issue. There are likely still more legal battles to come in terms of sanctuary cities as Benton describes, and we may even witness the battle in the U.S. Supreme Court. Nonetheless, Benton concludes her article by stating that the way the law stands now, sanctuary cities should be able to function as normal due to their Tenth Amendment protections (Benton, 143).


Works Cited

AP. “Murder Case Fails Against Immigrants in Pennsylvania City.” New York Times, 8 July 2017.

Barletta, Lou. “We Can Stop Sanctuary Cities.” The Hill, 18 Jan. 2017.

Benton, Grace. “The Legality of Sanctuary Cities Current Developments.” Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018, pp. 139–144.

Bocetta, Sam. “Sanctuary Cities and the Tenth Amendment.” Gun News Daily, 2 Jan. 2018.

Cummings, William. “Federal Appeals Court Rules Trump Sanctuary City Order Unconstitutional.” USA Today, 1 Aug. 2018.

Ingraham, Christopher. “Trump Says Sanctuary Cities Are Hotbeds of Crime. Data Say the Opposite.” Washington Post, 27 Jan. 2017.

Morse, Ann, et al. “Sanctuary Policy FAQ.” National Conference of State Legislatures, 20 June 2019, pp. 1–7.

Robbins, Liz. “‘Sanctuary City’ Mayors Vow to Defy Trump’s Immigration Order.” Washington Post, 25 Jan. 2017.

Tobin, Jonathan S. “A Liberal Judge Rediscovers the Tenth Amendment — So Should Conservatives.” National Review, 22 Nov. 2017, pp. 1–3.