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Sanctuary Cities and Counties

Sanctuary Cities and Counties

Sanctuary cities and counties have recently taken center stage in the national debate on immigration. Given the relevance of this issue to local governments in Washington State, this blog post will explore what “sanctuary” jurisdictions are, how they are designated, and reasons local governments have cited for and against becoming a “sanctuary” jurisdiction.

While this is a polarizing topic, the purpose of this blog post is simply to inform local governments in Washington State about this emerging issue, and not to advocate for or against local governments designating themselves as “sanctuary” jurisdictions. As this blog post will explain, that is a matter of local policy for each jurisdiction to decide on its own.

On February 23, Governor Inslee signed Executive Order 17-01, which directs state agencies to continue to provide assistance and services to Washingtonians, regardless of citizenship or legal status. In addition, the order directs state agencies to not inquire into an individual's immigration status for the sole purpose of identifying if a person has complied with federal civil immigration laws. The order does not directly affect Washington State's local governments.

What are “Sanctuary” Jurisdictions?

On May 22, the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo clarifying the definition of “sanctuary jurisdictions” for the purposes of President Trump’s Executive Order 13768 (addressing sanctuary jurisdictions). Specifically, the memo clarifies that the term “sanctuary jurisdiction” will refer only to jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373. In other words, a jurisdiction that does not willfully refuse to comply with section 1373 is not a “sanctuary jurisdiction” as that term is used in Executive Order 13768. For more information, see this blog post from Lisa Soronen, the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center.

In contexts beyond that of Executive Order 13768, neither state nor federal law defines what constitutes a “sanctuary city.” Instead, the term “sanctuary” is generally used in reference to state or local governments—such as cities and counties—that have adopted policies limiting their cooperation with the federal government’s enforcement of federal immigration laws. However, the exact limitations that have been adopted vary across “sanctuary” jurisdictions. Moreover, some jurisdictions have implemented such policies, but have not adopted the term “sanctuary.” For example, some have instead designated themselves as a “welcoming” jurisdiction.

It’s also important to note that the term “sanctuary” is also somewhat misleading as state and local governments cannot offer blanket protections from deportation—they can only limit their cooperation with the federal government’s enforcement of federal immigration law.

What Authorizes Washington State’s Local Governments to Designate Themselves as “Sanctuary” Jurisdictions?

It’s simply a matter of local policy. In the absence of state law to the contrary, local governments in Washington State have discretion to decide the extent to which local government resources will be used to help the federal government enforce federal immigration laws. Moreover, the federal government cannot force state governments—and by extension local governments—to enforce federal laws. See, e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in New York v. United States (1992) and Printz v. United States (1997).

On April 6, Attorney General Bob Ferguson released immigration guidance for local governments in Washington State. The guidance seeks to answer questions local governments may have about the impacts of changes to immigration laws and their discretion regarding participation in federal immigration enforcement.

“Sanctuary” jurisdictions are not the first instance of local governments taking action stemming from disagreement with policies adopted by the federal government. For example, Washington’s own Ferry County has adopted policies to encourage the federal government to consider county culture, heritage, and customs when making decisions related to the management of federal lands within the county. Another example comes from Oregon, where in 2015 Coos County adopted a Second Amendment Preservation Ordinance that, in part, prohibits county resources from being used to enforce some federal regulations affecting firearms. Here in Washington, the City of Spokane Valley recently considered a similar proposal to designate itself as a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City.”

Should My Local Government Become a “Sanctuary” Jurisdiction?

Again, it’s a matter of local policy to determine whether or not to become a “sanctuary” jurisdiction. Since each local government in Washington may make this choice on its own, a variety of reasons have been cited by local governments that have opted to become “sanctuary” jurisdictions, including the following:

  1. It’s the federal government’s job to bear the costs associated with enforcing federal immigration law, not local governments.
  2. The federal government’s practice of asking local law enforcement to continue to detain undocumented inmates beyond their release dates so that federal representatives may take them into custody has been declared by federal courts to be unconstitutional.
  3. Local law enforcement officers want to encourage the reporting of crime by victims and witnesses and inquiring into a person’s immigration status could result in a decrease of such reporting.
  4. Local communities wish to provide public services to all residents without inquiring into or conditioning such services on immigration status.

In contrast, there are also a variety of reasons cited by local governments that have decided against becoming a “sanctuary” jurisdiction, including the following:

  1. Local governments should make every effort to assist the federal government’s enforcement of federal immigration laws.
  2. Local governments that become “sanctuary” jurisdictions may lose access to some federal funding.
  3. Local community interest in prioritizing immigration enforcement over other uses of local government resources.

What’s Being Done in Washington State?

Below are some sample policies from jurisdictions in Washington State. While not all of these jurisdictions have chosen to name themselves as a “sanctuary,” each has adopted policies related to federal immigration laws. For more samples and model language that local governments can or have adopted, see Appendix A and B of the Washington Attorney General’s Guidance Concerning Immigration Enforcement publication.

Have a question or comment about this information? Let me know below or contact me directly at

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Robert Sepler

Robert interned with MRSC for a year before joining the legal team as a Legal Consultant. He wrote about recent court decisions and a variety of other topics impacting local governments. He no longer works for MRSC.