What are sanctuary cities and why are they so controversial in the illegal immigration debate?

An undocumented immigrant from El Salvador was arrested in Maryland earlier this month on suspicion of raping an 11-year-old girl. Upon his arrest, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immediately lodged a detainer request with Montgomery County authorities to take him into custody.

This was possible after county law enforcement have begun cooperating with federal immigration agencies that issue detainers, which allow agents to take undocumented immigrants into federal custody before they are released from local jails to begin deportation proceedings.

Local and state governments that support so-called sanctuary city policies have come under increasing scrutiny from the Trump administration and conservative leaders over the lack of cooperation between some municipalities and immigration officials — opponents of sanctuary policies cite public safety concerns and the widening social safety net for why such measures shouldn’t exist.

In Maryland’s Montgomery County, portions of its sanctuary policy were rolled back last year following the arrests of several people living in the United States illegally on rape and sexual abuse charges.


Earlier this month, Attorney General William Barr announced a slew of sanctions against local and state governments that hinder the “lawful functioning of our nation’s immigration system.” He said he would file lawsuits against sanctuary jurisdictions for interfering with immigration enforcement.

“When we are talking about sanctuary cities, we are talking about policies that are designed to allow criminal aliens to escape,” Barr said while speaking at the National Sheriff’s Association 2020 Winter Legislative and Technology Conference in Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration has ratcheted up pressure on local governments by threatening to withhold federal funding for cities that obstruct immigration enforcement and has called out Democrats, and California in particular.


In 2018, several Calfornia cities supported the administration’s lawsuit against the state’s sanctuary policies after then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a bill that prevents local law enforcement agencies from using their resources to assist federal immigration agencies.

In another rift between federal and local authorities, ICE subpoenaed a sheriff’s office in the suburbs of Portland this month for information on two Mexican citizens slated for deportation. In recent weeks it has taken to publicly calling out law enforcement agencies that refuse to assist its agents.

In February, ICE issued news releases criticizing authorities in Philidelphia and elected officials in Connecticut and New York City for ignoring detainers and subpoenas related to undocumented immigrants accused of crimes.

Across the country in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last year a bill to mandate local governments cooperate federal immigration officials.

In Tucson, Ariz., voters rejected a measure last year to become the state’s only sanctuary city amid concerns it put too many restrictions on police officers.

In an effort to track down and detain undocumented immigrants, specially trained border patrol agents are being deployed to several cities and states, further widening the divide between hardliners on both sides of the issue.

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