The recent presidential election has brought a massive amount of uncertainty for immigrants, prospective immigrants, their employers, and their families. The uncertainty ranges from the new president-elect’s rhetoric regarding deportations to the future of various permanent and temporary visa programs. The extent to which local governments participate in immigration enforcement potentially affects all immigrants. The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government exclusive authority over immigration, but enforcement efforts have expanded to include local law enforcement. Many local officials have pushed back in recent years, stating that they will not actively participate in federal immigration enforcement. Multiple court decisions support this position, but it remains controversial. Cities that have taken this position are often known as “sanctuary cities,” a term that can be both descriptive and pejorative, depending on the circumstances.
Part of the problem with addressing this issue is the lack of a clear definition of a “sanctuary city.” It does not mean that anyone in such a city is “safe” from immigration enforcement. At a minimum, it means that local officials will not cooperate with simple requests from a federal agency like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Federal immigration officials routinely review county jail rosters to check for possible immigration violations, and they place “detainers” on people they believe may be undocumented or otherwise in violation of federal immigration laws.
Congress has the sole authority “to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 4. This means that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over immigration questions. Immigration proceedings are federal civil matters. Local courts therefore have no jurisdiction to adjudicate such questions with regard to inmates in their custody. A detainer amounts to a request that local law enforcement continue to hold a person beyond the time they would otherwise be released, until ICE can take custody of them. Many local officials are saying that they will not comply with such requests unless they are accompanied by additional legal authority, such as a warrant or court order.