Court Ruling Puts American Sanctuary Cities In Jeopardy


This past Wednesday marked US President Trump’s latest victory in his attack on sanctuary cities. The Trump administration can now withhold millions in funding from states and cities that fail to comply with federal immigration law enforcement. It was previously illegal for the U.S. government to deny resources based on a state’s or city’s adherence to federal immigration processes. But a recent ruling, which came from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan, allows the federal government to refuse to allocate grants to any jurisdiction that defies national immigration policies.

By decision of the court, New York City and seven states, namely, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Rhode Island will lose grant money unless they permit federal immigration authorities  to access jails, as well as provide authorities with advance notice before the release of an undocumented immigrant.

All of these states either identify as sanctuaries or house sanctuary jurisdictions. Under U.S. immigration law, a sanctuary jurisdiction is a state or a subdivision of a state that refuses to disclose the status of an immigrant, disobeys an ordinance to detain an immigrant, or fails to notify government entities about the release of an immigrant.

The U.S. is home to the world’s largest immigrant population, with a foreign-born population totaling 44.4 million. Undocumented immigrants, who are individuals that reside in the U.S. without the permission of the federal government, account for nearly a quarter of America’s immigrant population. Mexicans make up the highest number of undocumented immigrants, but lately, more undocumented immigrants have been arriving from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

A variety of economic, social, and political factors have driven people from the Northern Triangle. All three countries face growing food insecurity in large part due to the agricultural hardships caused by the El Niño phenomenon. Moreover, transnational gangs, mainly the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18), continue to perpetuate crime and violence throughout the region. El Salvador and Honduras have the highest rates of femicide, meaning the murder of women and girls in all of Latin America. The Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras estimated that one woman dies violently in Honduras every 17 hours, and they found an impunity rate of 95 percent for crimes committed against women. The co-occurrence of these factors has forced many migrants to make the journey northward to seek refuge in America.

Amongst the primary receivers of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are the sanctuary states of California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. Above all, these states guarantee equitable access to government and, most importantly, policing services for undocumented immigrants. When immigrants are fearful of contacting the police, it not only jeopardizes immigrants’ safety but also compromises the efficiency of the policing process by excluding migrants as potential witnesses of crimes. In sanctuary jurisdictions, individuals without legal status can foster trusting relationships with police officers, as they can be assured that their undocumented status will go unquestioned.

Trump has openly condemned the sanctuary movement. Most recently, during the State of the Union Address, the President’s remarks conjured an image of the U.S. overwhelmed with criminal activity at the hands of “illegal aliens.” In reality, immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are much less likely to commit crimes than individuals born in the U.S. A natural-born American citizen is about 140 times more likely to die in a firearm assault and nearly four times more likely to die in a mass shooting than in a terrorist attack orchestrated by a refugee.

The new ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals will hardly go unchallenged. Defenders of the sanctuary movement are committed to fighting Trump’s immigration policies. As reported by the New York Times, Gurbir S. Grewal, the attorney general of New Jersey, said, “It’s unfortunate that the federal government has decided to weaponize the federal grant funding process in order to carry out the president’s anti-immigrant agenda, but I’m confident that we will ultimately prevail in the courts.”

The sanctuary movement has significant human rights implications. Individuals fleeing precarious situations can more easily realize their fundamental economic and social rights after being offered protection as undocumented immigrants. In the public sphere, to ensure the prevalence of sanctuary states and cities, the media must make a concerted effort to humanize undocumented immigrants. In politics, the federal government must respect the autonomy of individual jurisdictions to impose sanctuary policies.