Sanctuary Cities and Sanctuary Workplaces: A Primer


What does sanctuary city mean?

Most people hear “sanctuary city” and think it means a place where people will be protected from deportation, but that’s not exactly true. There is no concrete legal definition of a sanctuary city, but generally it means a city won’t go out of its way to enforce federal immigration laws. The term has been in use since the 1980s, but means different things in different places. It might be a resolution passed by a city council, the policy of local law enforcement, or just common practice for city agencies without any official policy. Usually, being a sanctuary city includes a few things:

  1. Law enforcement will not detain someone for ICE if they would normally be released, unless ICE has a signed warrant.

  2. Law enforcement and other city agencies will not ask people about their immigration status when providing services.

  3. Law enforcement and other city agencies will not share information about an individual’s immigration status with federal immigration enforcement.

  4. City funds won’t be used to enforce federal immigration laws.

Some cities (or counties) may adopt some of those practices but not others, or do other things not on this list. But it’s important to note that none of these things is illegal. The federal government cannot compel local agencies to enforce federal laws. In fact, many experts believe that ICE detainer requests (i.e., asking police to keep someone in jail after they normally would have been released) may be unconstitutional.

What Washington cities are sanctuary cities?

Many cities or municipalities that have passed sanctuary resolutions or ordinances in recent months are just formalizing policies that have already been in practice for years.

  • Seattle passed a city ordinance back in 2003, though the word “sanctuary” wasn’t used then. Mayor Murray’s declaration after the election that Seattle would remain a sanctuary city was to reaffirm the existing policy.

  • Burien passed their own ordinance earlier this year, also without the word “sanctuary”.

  • Olympia’s City Council passed a resolution declaring Olympia a sanctuary city last December.

  • King County hasn’t passed any official resolution, but the county has already had a practice of not asking people about their immigration status, and the county sheriff has said they plan to continue this practice.

  • Edmonds has taken a softer approach with a “safe city” resolution promising to fight discrimination in their community.


There is no comprehensive list of sanctuary cities, because “sanctuary city” is not a legal designation. It’s a collection of practices and policies, official or unofficial, to not get involved with federal immigration enforcement. There are many municipalities that have never considered publicly declaring themselves sanctuaries, but nevertheless have a practice of not honoring ICE detainer requests. This is because honoring those detainer requests makes it harder for local law enforcement to do their jobs by eroding community trust, and because the requests may be unconstitutional.

Other sanctuaries

The wave of attention on sanctuary cities has led to other movements for other sanctuaries. But what do they mean?

Sanctuary Restaurants:

Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United and have been promoting a Sanctuary Restaurants campaign. Participating restaurants sign an open letter to the Trump administration opposing the deportation and harassment of immigrants, and post a sign in their window stating a zero-tolerance policy for various types of discrimination. Restaurateurs can access a webinar on their rights when it comes to immigrant employees, and the campaign website provides workers with resources on their rights when reporting discrimination. Customers are encouraged to ask their favorite restaurants to join the movement. It’s not a legal designation, and sanctuary restaurants are not violating any laws, but joining the campaign is a show of solidarity with vulnerable immigrant communities and a commitment to support workers’ rights on the job.

Sanctuary Homes:

The National Domestic Workers Alliance and Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network have started a campaign for people employing domestic workers to declare themselves a “sanctuary home.” The campaign encourages people who hire nannies, housekeepers, and other domestic workers to talk to their employees about the election, give them time to spend with their own families, learn about and share information on their rights and legal resources, offer rides home, discuss an emergency plan, and get involved in community action for immigrant rights. But another big piece of the campaign is reminding the employers of domestic workers that they are employers, and they should engage in fair labor practices. This means a living wage, paid time off, overtime, and communicating clear expectations. People who hire nannies, housekeepers, or caregivers often don’t think of themselves as employers or their homes as workplaces, and that needs to change. For domestic employers, caring about immigrant rights and safety needs to begin with respecting labor rights at home.

Sanctuary Churches:

Sanctuary churches have been operating for decades, and are different from other sanctuary movements in that they aim to actually provide sanctuary - people at risk of deportation will live inside the church. ICE officials haven’t gone into churches to arrest anyone (yet), so they are considered safe places for someone to stay while they mount their legal battles. In addition to sheltering undocumented immigrants, sanctuary churches may help them access legal resources. Some churches will help a family seek asylum status or get power of attorney for families so that if a parent is deported, the children won’t be automatically sent to foster care. Church leaders may assemble groups to protest at detention centers, spend time near schools to discourage ICE officials from detaining someone there, or form “rapid response teams” to rush to the scene of a detention to provide support and document what happens. Usually churches in this movement ask people seeking sanctuary to do so publicly and allow their story to be told, because the goal of sanctuary churches is not only to help individual families, but to advocate for immigration reform.

What comes next?

Sanctuary cities began rising up decades ago because immigrants have been under attack for a long time. In fact, the sanctuary church movement gained a lot of traction during Obama’s presidency, when detentions and deportations went through the roof. But what’s happening now is unprecedented. ICE agents are detaining people at their workplaces, at schools, and even at hospitals. All immigrants are targeted, not just those who have committed a crime. Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, and the city of Seattle has sued the administration over the threat - a suit the Trump administration has since moved to dismiss. But how we can best support our neighbors and coworkers who are under threat is far from clear.

If you want to defend sanctuary cities or advocate for your own, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Sanctuary cities are not illegal. Local agencies cannot be compelled to do ICE’s job for them. Even the question of whether the federal government can strip funding from sanctuary cities is up for debate.

  • Immigrant populations don’t make your community less safe. In fact, studies have shown that immigrants, whether documented or not, are no more likely to commit a crime than native-born Americans, and some studies suggest immigrants are less likely to commit a crime. Horror stories of immigrant crime waves in Europe, often used to justify anti-immigrant sentiments here, are generally exaggerations, misrepresentations, or straight-up lies.

  • Your local law enforcement may already have a “sanctuary”-like policy -- even if they’d never call it that. Many agencies find that obeying potentially unconstitutional ICE detainer requests is counterproductive. If the community doesn’t trust them and people are afraid to report crimes, then they can’t do their jobs effectively.

For now, let your city officials know you support a sanctuary resolution or similar action. If you’re an employer, the National Employment Law Project has a helpful guide for what to do if ICE comes to your workplace so that you know your rights and your employees’ rights.