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What is a Sanctuary City?

There have been some recent major changes in the political arena that are expected to cause changes to the U.S. immigration policy and how the law is currently applied in some cases.  These expected changes have caused alarm because it could mean increased deportation for people who are out of status or who entered the country without a visa. Some cities across the country, including Pasadena, have responded by affirming their status as sanctuary cities in an effort to calm their immigrant populations.

The term “sanctuary city” refers to a city in which a person who is in the U.S. in violation of federal immigration law is not generally prosecuted by the city’s authorities solely based on his or her immigration status. This sometimes means that officials in a sanctuary city will not fully cooperate with federal authorities seeking to apprehend and deport an undocumented immigrant.  For example, if an undocumented immigrant is arrested for theft, or a traffic offense, he or she will be prosecuted for the state law charge, but immigration officials will not likely be notified that the person is in custody even after city officials determine the person’s immigration status. Sometimes, even if immigration officials send a detainer request asking to be notified when the person is about to be released, city officials may refuse to honor that request.

Sanctuary cities base their authority to refuse total cooperation with federal immigration authorities on the tenth amendment of the constitution, which basically says the federal government cannot require compliance by states – and by extension the states’ cities – to enforce federal law. However, sanctuary cities cannot intervene to stop deportation. Although sanctuary cities offer some level of assurance that a person will not be deported if he or she is arrested or questioned by city police officers, deportation is still possible if the arrest is by federal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. Information gathered during an arrest by city police officers, such as fingerprints, is still passed on to the FBI and eventually to ICE.

There have been suggestions that federal funding to sanctuary cities will soon be reduced until they start cooperating, and that this may cause some sanctuary cities to start cooperating more fully with federal authorities. However, because of Supreme Court cases limiting the way the federal government may put conditions on federal funds to states, sanctuary cities are not likely to be completely cut off from federal funding. In any case, the threat of losing federal funds does not seem to deter cities from declaring they will continue to act as sanctuary cities, and most are reaffirming their status and setting up resources to help undocumented immigrants living within their borders.

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Whether you are an undocumented immigrant or a person in the country on an immigrant visa or under permanent resident status, you should familiarize yourself with your options in order to be prepared for any future immigration changes that may affect you. For more information, contact our multi-lingual staff to speak to an experienced immigration attorney from Strassburg, Gilmore & Wei, LLP, in Pasadena, California for a consultation.

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