Oakland updated its status as a sanctuary city in April following a series of high-profile raids around the Bay Area by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Oakland had been a sanctuary city as part of a movement in the 1980s offering political asylum to certain refugees. Some cities like Oakland and San Francisco have reinvented the concept as a way to disassociate themselves from the stepped-up ICE raids.
The term sanctuary, however, may be a misnomer.
"What's going on now is not really a sanctuary movement… It's a modern community-policing strategy," says Lynn Tramonte, a senior policy associate with the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy organization based in Washington. "It's not as though the police department policies protect foreign-born people from deportation."
Typically, the policies direct cops not to look for violations of immigration law, though some cities allow questions if the person has been booked on a felony.
A few cities including New York, Oakland, and Baltimore extend the "don't ask" policy to all city workers – a move advocates say helps ensure kids get vaccines and adults seek healthcare.
Nearly 70 cities, counties, and states have enacted sanctuary policies, according to a preliminary count by the National Immigration Law Center. The Congressional Research Service in 2006 put the number at 32 cities and counties.
The plethora of ordinances and police department rules has created some confusion, even among officials in Washington.
"People use the term 'sanctuary city' in different ways, so I'm never quite sure what people mean," said Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS), during a Congressional hearing earlier this month. He called "foolish and counterproductive" those policies that prevent reporting felons for deportation. But, he added, "I'm not aware of any city – although I may be wrong – that actually interferes with our ability to enforce the law."