A photo of a road sign that says, "sanctuary city, welcome all."

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The term “sanctuary city” has a nice ring to it. What city doesn’t want to be a safe space for its inhabitants, no matter where they were born? The trouble is, when it comes to illegal immigration, a blanket welcome mat for all can lead to some pretty serious consequences.

The first warning bell is the lack of an agreed upon definition of the term. The general consensus is that a sanctuary town, city, or county is one that has officially decided not to comply with federal law that requires them to detain illegal immigrants. It’s a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for immigration. Cities across the country, including San Francisco, New York, and Chicago use the sanctuary city label.

The actions of sanctuary cities are actually in violation of US Code § 1373, which states that “a Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”

This isn’t just an act of civil disobedience, though. These same cities receive thousands of federal grant dollars every year even though they are acting in direct violation of the law. If they break the rules, why are they still getting the funding?

And it’s not just a matter of money. Real human lives are at stake. Of the 8,145 undocumented immigrants released from detention between January 1, 2014 and August 31, 2014:

  • 5,132 (63%) had previous criminal convictions or were considered public safety concerns;
  • 2,984 (36.6%) had felony charges or convictions;
  • 1,909 (23.4%) had misdemeanor convictions or charges related to violence, assault, sexual abuse, weapons, or drugs;
  • 239 (2.9%) had three or more misdemeanor convictions.

Of course illegal immigrants aren’t responsible for all the crimes committed in cities. But the fact that so many have a history of criminal activity is disturbing, to say the least.

This lesson was brought home to residents of San Francisco in 2015, when, on July 1, Kathryn Steinle was fatally shot. Her alleged murderer is an illegal immigrant from Mexico with a criminal history and a record of several previous deportations.

Whether or not Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez is ultimately found guilty of this crime, he was definitely breaking the law by being a felon in possession of a firearm. And if local authorities had seen fit to inform the federal government about Lopez-Sanchez’s status as an illegal immigrant, it’s quite possible this murder might never have happened.

The Steinle case was not, unfortunately, an isolated incident. Violence perpetuated by illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities is disturbingly common. In Los Angeles, 95% of all outstanding warrants for homicide are for illegal immigrants. In southern California, 60% of the 18th Street Gang (which has at least 20,000 members) are illegal immigrants who partner with the Mexican Mafia on drug distribution schemes, extortion, assassinations, assaults, and robberies. In fact, these gangs are well known for specifically targeting recently arrived illegal immigrants and convincing them to join the ranks.

City dwellers deserve to feel safe and supported in their hometowns no matter where they originally came from. And the many injustices and complications—not to mention frequent bigotry—around US immigration can’t be overlooked. Still, sanctuary cities are hardly the sanctuaries they claim to be.