Exploring the top immigrant-friendly cities in the United States

In the years and decades since, many cities have passed their ordinances to defend immigrants and refugees by various means.

Image Credit: Patrick Gorski/AP

What is a sanctuary city?

The term “sanctuary city” is defined by The term refers to a municipality that may limit its cooperation with the federal government’s efforts to enforce immigration law. The movement for sanctuary cities in the United States arose during the 1980s when the federal government was refusing to grant asylum to refugees arriving from certain Central American countries, which were politically unstable at the time.

The history of sanctuary cities goes back much further than the United States, however. The concept of aiding immigrants and refugees at the behest of the federal government has been around for thousands of years, and has roots in various religions, from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism to Sikhism. The rise of sanctuary cities in the US was also primarily driven by religious groups in the Southwest, with several churches publicly declaring sanctuary for refugees in 1982. San Francisco led the movement when, in 1985, they passed the symbolic “City of Refuge” resolution, which prohibited the use of city funds to assist federal immigration enforcement.

In the years and decades since, many cities have passed their ordinances to defend immigrants and refugees by various means. Sanctuary cities by definition protect immigrants from persecution, they inform immigrants about their rights and issue them official documentation and identification to help them assimilate into society. As of 2018, there are more than 560 cities and counties considered “sanctuaries.”

5 popular U.S. sanctuary cities

The following are examples of the more popular sanctuary cities in the United States, including what makes them a more viable option for immigrant communities. You can find also visit the NAE Cities Index, a ranking of how welcoming the biggest 100 cities in the U.S. are to immigrant communities, brought to you by the New American Economy organization.

Chicago, IL

Top immigrant-friendly U.S. sanctuary cities - Chicago, IL
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Known for its skyscrapers and art galleries, Chicago is also one of the best cities for immigrants and refugee populations.

Chicago’s history as a sanctuary city began in July of 1982 when 20 local churches became havens for immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala fleeing violence and persecution who were denied asylum due to the United States’ involvement with their governments. Chicago passed ordinances that offered pathways for immigrants to attain legal status in the country and has remained committed to affirming fair and equal access to employment, benefits, and licenses to all, regardless of nationality or citizenship, and as long as immigrants respect local laws.

Chicago firmly established itself as a safe haven for immigrants with the Welcoming City ordinance signed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012. The ordinance aimed at making Chicago the “most immigrant-friendly city in the country” by incorporating basic protections for undocumented Chicagoans without a criminal record.

San Jose, CA

Top immigrant-friendly U.S. sanctuary cities - San Jose, CA
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San Jose and Santa Clara County, of which San Jose is a part of, have long adopted policies that instruct officials not to report undocumented persons living in the local community. Somewhat controversially, this also applies to persons in jail and prison, which anti-immigration groups have used as an argument against sanctuary cities, although, San Jose is also known to be one of the safest cities in the country.

San Jose was the first city to sue the federal government over the recent action to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects young immigrants, known colloquially as “Dreamers,” brought to America illegally as children. Santa Clara County has also set up a 24-hour “Rapid Response Network” hotline where people can report ICE raids in progress. Volunteers monitor the hotline to inform residents of their rights and help make no mistreatment is taking place. The network is operated by and includes training from local groups, including Pangea Legal Services, Sacred Heart Community Service, and PACT: People Acting in Community Together.

New York City, NY

Top immigrant-friendly U.S. sanctuary cities - New York City, NY
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New York City, with the near constant influx of immigrants throughout the decades through Ellis Island, became known as a gateway to America and provided immigrants with refuge and protections for decades. Recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would defend residents of New York from immigration authorities, “regardless of where they come from, regardless of their immigration status.”

New York City will generally not comply with requests to detain undocumented residents. However, if the person in question has a conviction of one of 170 serious crimes within the last seven years, including arson, homicide, rape or robbery, police will turn them over to immigration authorities.

Roughly 500,000 undocumented residents live in New York City at any given time, and undocumented workers make up a significant percentage of the labor force in the metropolitan area. In late 2017, New York passed the Intro 1568-2017, a bill that prohibits city agencies from working with the federal government to enforce immigration laws, and also prevents the use of city resources and funding for federal immigration enforcement, as well.

The city offers many programs to assist undocumented residents, including the most extensive municipal identification program in the country. This means that residents may attain valid photo identification, regardless of immigration status, which allows them to open a bank account and gives them access to various social programs.

San Francisco, CA

Top immigrant-friendly U.S. sanctuary cities - San Francisco, CA
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It began in the early 1980s when El Salvador and Guatemala were in the midst of a violent civil war. There were hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking political asylum in San Francisco, but the US federal government was denying their applications. The city was also actively participating in immigration raids at the time, at which point, churches and communities within San Francisco began creating sanctuaries for refugees.

In 1989, San Francisco passed the “City and County of Refuge” law, also known as the Sanctuary Ordinance. This legislation was one of the first laws of its kind in the United States, and it prohibits city employees and city funds from aiding in federal immigration enforcement. San Francisco also passed the “Due Process for All” ordinance in 2013, which limits when law enforcement may inform immigration officials about the release of undocumented persons from jail, and prohibits cooperation with ICE detainer requests.

One of the biggest reasons for the Sanctuary Ordinance is for residents to feel protected and willing to report a crime to police officials without fear of deportation. It promotes trust and cooperation between residents and local authorities, allows undocumented persons access to social health services, and ensures that anyone can call emergency personnel in a public safety situation, regardless of status.

Washington, D.C.

Top immigrant-friendly U.S. sanctuary cities - Washington, DC
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The nation’s capital has always been a transitory city, filled with an influx of persons from around the country and ultimately, from around the globe. There are approximately 70,000 immigrants in the District, of whom around 25,000 are undocumented. Former Mayor Marion Barry issued the first executive order calling for D.C. to be a sanctuary city in 1984, and his successor, former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly reissued the order. In 2011, former Mayor Vincent Gray went a step further and signed a law to prohibit DC public safety officials from inquiring about a resident’s immigration status during arrests or other operations.

Current D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser reaffirmed the city’s status as a sanctuary city in 2017, despite the threat of a funding cut from the federal government. As part of a response to immigration crackdowns, Mayor Bowser created the Immigrant Justice Legal Services Grant program, allotting $500,000 to serve immigrants in the area facing deportation or immigration hearings, including “Know Your Rights” workshops, as well as many other legal services and assistance with asylum applications.

The United States is home to a large population of immigrants, both legal and undocumented. Sanctuary cities are an essential part of the American ecosystem, as they provide a level of public trust and cooperation between residents and authorities that might otherwise cause more public safety concerns in the long run. Sanctuary cities offer respite for those who might otherwise be denied basic services due to immigration status and upholds the country’s standing as a nation of immigrants from all walks of life.


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