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Immigration Enforcement

In recent years, local law enforcement agencies have been asked to play an increasingly significant role in immigration enforcement. Unfortunately, local enforcement of immigration law often comes at a very high cost to cities and can undermine local law enforcement efforts. Eroding the trust of immigrant communities can result in an unwillingness to contact law enforcement even in emergency situations or when a crime has been committed. This results in the isolation of immigrant communities from city services and the city’s social life.


Despite recent federal threats against communities which resist this costly intervention (so-called “sanctuary cities”), there are many legal and policy-based avenues for cities to minimize their participation in enforcement of immigration law. There are currently 4 states, 364 counties, and 39 cities with sanctuary policies that limit local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agencies. An effective sanctuary city program aims to avoid or eliminate laws requiring or allowing local law enforcement to police immigration law while actively stating opposition to such costly requirements. Sanctuary city models often include: refusing to enforce non-judicial civil immigration warrants from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies, not holding uncharged individuals in custody for indeterminate periods of time, limiting ICE and CBP access to individuals in custody, and limiting costly information gathering and reporting at the behest of federal agencies.


Minimizing involvement in the ICE S-Comm program is one example of how cities can limit costly information gathering and reporting. The ICE S-Comm program requires that fingerprints taken by local officials be sent to the FBI to compare against a federal immigration database. Although in 2010 the program was made mandatory, cities can limit the situations in which local law enforcement complies with detainer requests that result from the S-Comm program. This is normally limited to only situations involving serious felony offenses. Additionally, cities can require ICE to pay for expenses associated with hold requests.


An effective way to combat the mistrust sowed by local involvement in immigration enforcement is through municipal support of the federal U Visa program. The U Visa, which was created under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, offers immigrants a visa for providing assistance to law enforcement in criminal investigations.  Finally, while the “Deferred Action” program is currently in legal limbo given the change in federal administration, cities should work to provide accurate and up to date information as the program evolves. This program provides temporary relief and work permits for immigrants who came to America as children. While deferred action offers opportunities and security to many immigrants, the program has also created equal amounts of confusion and even risks, such as revealing one’s undocumented status despite failing to qualify for the program. Local support through community partnerships can ensure effective use of the deferred action program.  


Cities should remain attentive to changes affecting their jurisdictions and be vigilant in protecting local law enforcement interests from breaches of trust with immigrant communities. 

Webinar: Actions Local Jurisdictions Can Take to Protect Immigrants and Refugees, Government Alliance on Race and Equity, February 27th, 2017. Read more.

Elected Officials and Recent ICE Raids, National Immigration Law Center, February 11th, 2017. Read more.

Legal Steps Sanctuary Cities Can Take If They Lose Federal Funding, Lisa Soronen, Cities Speak, January 27th, 2017. Read more.

The Effects of Sanctuary Policies on Crime and the Economy, Tom K. Wong, Center for American Progress, January 26th, 2017. Read more.

Guide and Map of Sanctuary Cities, Jasmine Lee, Rudy Omri, and Julia Preston, New York Times, January 25th, 2017. Read more.

New York Attorney General Guide to Protecting Immigrant Communities, New York Attorney General, January 19th, 2017. Read more.

Guide to and Analysis of America’s Sanctuary Cities, Lena Graber, Nikki Marquez, et al, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, December 19th, 2016. Read more.

National Map of Sanctuary Cities, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, December 19th, 2016. Read more.

Local Options for Protecting Immigrants, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, December 14th, 2016. Read more.

District of Columbia Immigration Detainer Limitation Act, DC Legis Act, October 8th, 2012. Read more.

Tool Kit for Law Enforcement Use of the U-Visa, Sameera Hafiz, et al, Legal Momentum and the VERA Institute of Justice, September 1st, 2011. Read more.

The U Visa and How It Can Protect Workers, National Immigration Law Center, September 15th, 2010. Read more.

The U Visa Manual, NY Anti-Trafficking Network, March 1st, 2010. Read more.

Cities and Immigration: Local Policies for Immigrant-Friendly Cities, Pablo A. Mitnik, Jessica Halpern-Finnerty, and Matt Vidal, COWS, January 1st, 2008. Read more.

Pro-Immigrant Measures Available to State or local governments, National Immigration Law Center, January 1st, 2007. Read more.

U-Visa Legislation from the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, Public Law 106th Congress, October 28th, 2000. Read more.

U Visa Law Enforcement Certification Resource Guide, Department of Homeland Security. Read more.

Recently, more cities have designated themselves as "sanctuary" cities, either through Council resolutions or by executive order, such as the example recently issued by Mayor Ginther of Columbus, OH. Currently, over 600 local governments are counted as such. 


After a series of contentious interactions between ICE’s S-Comm program and San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance, the San Francisco County Sheriff’s Office adopted a policy that protects low-level offenders or noncriminal immigrants from ICE detainer requests. The policy, adopted after ICE made the S-Comm program non-voluntary for local jurisdictions, was adopted to uphold San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance, which limits all local assistance in federal immigration enforcement to felonies. Similarly, the New Orleans police depart has a policy of not asking about immigration status, and not engaging in immigration enforcement. 


In September 2012 the Chicago City Council passed the Welcoming City Ordinance. In addition to prohibiting the investigation, arrest, or detention of an individual based solely on immigration status, the ordinance prohibits ICE agents access to an individual in custody unless it is for “a legitimate law enforcement purpose unrelated to the enforcement of civil immigration law.”


The District of Columbia passed legislation requiring detainer requests to only be honored when the individual in question is age 18 or older. The individual must have been convicted of a dangerous crime or a crime of violence either for which they are in custody or for which they have been convicted within 10 years of the detainer request—or for which they were released after having served a sentence within five years of the request.


In addition to limiting the situations where a detainer request will be honored, New York City requires the posting of a yearly report containing, among other things, the number of individuals who had at least one felony who were detained as a result of an ICE request and transferred to federal immigration authority custody.


In September 2011 the Cincinnati City Council passed a resolution in support of the U Visa. In the resolution, the council specifically recognized the importance of expressing its support to the County Police Association and the County Association of Chiefs of Police, and mandated that a copy of the resolution be sent to both organizations.


In February 2011 the San Francisco Police Department released a department bulletin setting up U Visa protocols.This included a list of the types of crimes for which the U Visa applies, the benefits the U Visa provides to crime victims, and qualifications a victim must meet in order to apply for a U Visa. The bulletin also clarifies that the role of patrol officers in the U Visa process is to explain to the victim that it may be possible to obtain a U Visa application and then, without attempting to establish a victim’s eligibility, refer applications to the Domestic Violence Unit.


When the deferred-action policy was first announced, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, created a deferred-action brochure that explained the policy, listed the criteria for deferment and additional resources, and outlined the application process.  Additionally, Madison has partnered with several community organizations to hold community immigration workshops on the deferred action process at the Catholic Multicultural Center, which also partners with other organizations to offer deferred action clinics to assist individuals with filling out deferred-action paperwork.


Mariah Young-Jones
For more information information on immigration enforcement, view Cities at Work, starting on page 286.