Sanctuary Cities: What the Right and the Left Both Get Wrong

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief by Alexander Stoney.

If you are a student of urban geography or public policy, you are undoubtedly familiar with the term ‘sanctuary city.’ The concept, first coined in the 1980s, is now a common feature of often heated political debate about immigration and refugee policies, particularly in North America.


"The term ‘sanctuary city’ refers to a municipal jurisdiction that limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement against illegal immigrants."

Preconceived notions of sanctuary cities often vary depending on political alignment. On the right, sanctuary cities are painted as anarchical urban centres where laws are defiantly flouted; on the left, they are more likely to be seen as safe havens for marginalized and vulnerable minorities. In truth, neither of these descriptions are fully accurate. In the midst of such controversy, it is important to be clear about what a sanctuary city is and what it actually does.


The term ‘sanctuary city’ refers to a municipal jurisdiction that limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement against illegal immigrants. Sanctuary cities designate themselves as such in order to provide access to municipal services to people who are non-status “undocumented” migrants who might otherwise avoid any interaction for fear of detection and deportation under federal immigration laws [1]. In sanctuary cities in Canada and the USA, municipal programs and services are delivered in such a way as to create a safe environment for non-status migrants.


"In a sanctuary city, policies usually direct police and other city officials to not inquire about immigration status, not deny any services based on immigration status, and not share personal or identifying information with federal authorities unless expressly required to under law [2]."

Non-status migrants are a particularly vulnerable population and often live in fear of detection and deportation in every step of their daily lives. By avoiding interactions that could expose them, families lose police protection and services, healthcare facilities, public health programs, social services, public facilities, and schooling, with wide implications for themselves and their children, and for the wider community in the city. Something as simple as a speeding ticket or a school breakfast program can cause immense stress. Sanctuary cities effectively remove themselves from the enforcement of immigration laws by drawing a hard line between federal (and state/provincial) law enforcement and the delivery of municipal services.


In non-sanctuary cities in Canada and the USA, when municipal officials or police become aware of the identity of non-status migrants, they may be compelled by federal immigration law to report this situation to federal authorities, who may detain and deport the migrants. In a sanctuary city, policies usually direct police and other city officials to not inquire about immigration status, not deny any services based on immigration status, and not share personal or identifying information with federal authorities unless expressly required to under law [2].


"If non-status migrants are effectively denied basic services, the city as a whole suffers. The problems of crime, low educational attainment, limited healthcare, and social isolation create an environment of profound inequity and social instability."

These details explain the process but do not answer the question of why a city may choose to designate itself a sanctuary city. Is it a question of compassion and mercy? What is in it for the city? Are there penalties for ignoring federal law?


The answers are complex. The concept of the sanctuary city has both symbolic and practical meaning. In human rights terms, sanctuary cities are an expression of values of openness to diversity and equality, fair treatment of all residents, and equal opportunity and access to services. As a political statement, the concept of the sanctuary city has been particularly contentious in the USA during the Trump administration, when tough immigration policy became a defining feature of the federal government. Thus, sanctuary cities become a powerful countervailing political statement.


As a practical policy, cities, particularly large ones with multicultural and multiethnic populations, see the quality of life of the city as a whole as a function of the well-being of all communities within its boundaries. If non-status migrants are effectively denied basic services, the city as a whole suffers. The problems of crime, low educational attainment, limited healthcare, and social isolation create an environment of profound inequity and social instability. For municipal governments, the designation of a sanctuary city sends a signal to all residents that they are safe when accessing municipal services. This approach reduces the invisibility of a population and allows for better policy outcomes across the urban space.


"The decision to become a sanctuary city is not an easy one. There may be consequences for ignoring federal immigration laws in the delivery of local services."

A good question to ask is do sanctuary cities actually work? Research comparing social measures in sanctuary cities and non-sanctuary cities are inconclusive. While one 2015 study in the US showed that sanctuary cities experienced 15% less crime than non-sanctuary cities, other studies are less conclusive [3]. However, the issue at the core of the debate around sanctuary cities is clear: should cities be forced to support federal immigration law enforcement even at the cost of their own local social and economic well-being?


The decision to become a sanctuary city is not an easy one. There may be consequences for ignoring federal immigration laws in the delivery of local services. In Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency enforces immigration laws throughout the country, including in sanctuary cities [4]. However, Canadian sanctuary cities offer the explicit commitment to not inquire about or reference immigration status when delivering municipal services. Immigrant advocacy groups argue that this is not enough, with police services in particular effectively denied to marginalized and often racialized populations [5].


In the US, the sanctuary city has taken on a more politically and legally defiant tone. In 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that allowed both federal and state governments to withhold funding from sanctuary cities [6]. This order underlined the financial stakes of this political show-down.


In 2021, there are only three official sanctuary cities in Canada: Toronto, Hamilton, and London. Many other cities have debated the idea and others, including Edmonton and Vancouver, have adopted the less contentious hybrid “access without fear” designation. In the USA, according to the Centre for Immigration Studies, more than 150 counties and cities have some ‘sanctuary’ measures in place [7].


While the concept of a sanctuary city will continue to be hotly debated in municipal politics, its precise meaning and powers remain murky and controversial. What is certain is that, in a global world with constant movement of migrants and refugees, the debate won’t go away.

  1. Kopan, T. (2018, March 26). What are sanctuary cities, and can they be defunded? Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/25/politics/sanctuary-cities-explained/index.html

  2. Hudson, G., Atak, I., Manocchi, M., & Hannan, C. (2017). A Pilot Study on Sanctuary City Policy in Toronto, Canada. RCIS Working Paper, 2017/1, 2-38. Retrieved February 6, 2021, from https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/centre-for-immigration-and-settlement/RCIS/publicat ions/workingpapers/2017_1_Hudson_Graham_Atak_Idil_Manocchi_Michele_Hannan_C harity_Ann_(No)_Access_T.O._A_Pilot_Study_on_Sanctuary_City_Policy_in_Toronto_C anada.pdf

  3. America's Voice. (2020, February 04). Immigration 101: What is a Sanctuary City? Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://americasvoice.org/blog/what-is-a-sanctuary-city/

  4. Heartfield, K. (2017, March 29). What is a sanctuary city anyway? Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://www.tvo.org/article/what-is-a-sanctuary-city-anyway

  5. Solidarity Across Borders. (2019, June 26). Montreal is neither a sanctuary city nor safe for undocumented migrants. Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://www.solidarityacrossborders.org/en/montreal-is-neither-a-sanctuary-city-nor-safe for-undocumented-migrants

  6. Ingraham, C. (2019, April 29). Analysis | Trump Says sanctuary cities are hotbeds of Crime. data say the opposite. Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/01/27/trump-says-sanctuary-cities -are-hotbeds-of-crime-data-say-the-opposite/

  7. Cooke, K., & Hesson, T. (2020, February 25). What are 'sanctuary' cities and Why is TRUMP targeting them? Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-crime-idUSKBN20J25R