Citiscape

10 of the Largest Sanctuary Cities in the United States

Although they have existed since the 1970s, the number of cities adopting “sanctuary policies” has risen dramatically over the last few decades. A sanctuary policy can encompass varying measures adopted by a city that to some degree limit participation in federal immigration enforcement efforts and interfere with federal agents’ fulfillment of their duties. These policies can range from prohibiting local police from inquiring about immigration status to refusing to honor requests (detainers) from federal immigration authorities to hold criminal aliens until those officials can assume custody. By refusing to cooperate with the arrest of criminal aliens, or those deemed to be deportable, these jurisdictions not only undermine federal law but potentially endanger the residents whom they are sworn to protect

There are approximately 600 sanctuary jurisdictions of differing sizes across the country. The list below identifies some of the largest sanctuary cities. Each has a population of over 700,000 according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2019.

New York City Logo
NY

NEW YORK CITY

With a total population of over 8.3 million, the Big Apple is not only the largest sanctuary city in the nation but also one of its oldest. In August of 1989, then-Mayor Ed Koch (D) signed an executive order barring the disclosure of information about an individual’s immigration status unless required by law or if the subject “is suspected … of engaging in criminal activity.”

Koch also issued executive orders allowing illegal aliens to access city services, which were subsequently reissued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) in 2003. The city’s pro-sanctuary stance has only hardened since Bill de Blasio (D) assumed office, including adopting policies of noncompliance with immigration warrants except in very limited circumstances.

NYC’s sanctuary policies led to such egregious crimes as the brutal rape and murder of 92-year-old Dominican immigrant Maria Fuertes by a Guyanese illegal alien in January 2020. The suspect had been in NYPD custody in November 2019 – after being charged with assaulting his own father and criminally possessing a weapon – but local authorities ignored an ICE detainer and set him free.

Los Angeles, CA logo
CA

LOS ANGELES

Los Angeles is the second-largest city in the U.S., with almost 4 million people. In November 1979, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) stated that its policy was that “undocumented alien status in itself is not a matter for police action.”

Since July 2014, the LAPD has refused to honor ICE detainers. In addition to creating an Office of Immigrant Affairs, Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) has adopted numerous pro-sanctuary policies, including providing “Know Your Rights” workshops to coach illegal aliens how to avoid arrest and signing an executive order declaring Los Angeles a “city of refuge” for illegal aliens. This was reaffirmed in February 2019, when the Los Angeles City Council voted 12-2 to pass a resolution officially declaring the municipality a “city of sanctuary.”

In one case of a preventable crime that Los Angeles’ sanctuary stance made possible, a Mexican national was arrested by the LAPD on January 7, 2018, for possessing a controlled substance. ICE issued a detainer, which Los Angeles ignored. The alien in question was subsequently arrested on February 26, 2018, for murder.

Chicago logo
IL

CHICAGO

A city of almost 2.7 million, Chicago has been an illegal alien sanctuary since the 2006 adoption of the City Council Welcoming City Ordinance, and was expanded in 2013 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel with the passage of his own ordinance stating that illegal aliens could only be detained under “very limited” circumstances., such as if they have been convicted of a serious crime.

Emanuel’s successor, Lori Lightfoot, campaigned on a pro-sanctuary platform and has joined legal challenges to Trump administration efforts to hold sanctuaries to account. In 2007, the Justice Department moved to limit the distribution of federal policing grants to several sanctuary cities, including Chicago. Lightfoot has adopted even stricter sanctuary restrictions since assuming office and has battled with various federal immigration agency leaders.  

In one case, an illegal alien from Mexico allegedly sexually assaulted a 3-year-old girl in February 2020. He had been previously released back into the community as a result of Chicago’s sanctuary policies after being arrested for theft in June 2019. In spite of this, the Chicago Police Department and Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) have defended their decision to release the illegal alien.

Philadelphia logo
PA

PHILIDELPHIA

Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia is home to 1.6 million people of which 12.7 percent were born outside of the United States. The city became a sanctuary for illegal aliens in 2014 when then-Mayor Michael Nutter (D) signed an executive order preventing local police from holding criminal aliens longer than they otherwise would solely because of their non-citizen status.

In January 2016, Mayor James Kenney (D) issued a similar order barring the honoring of immigration detainers unless a suspect had been convicted of a first or second degree felony involving violence and is accompanied by a judicial warrant.

In 2017, a federal judge ruled in favor of Philadelphia in its lawsuit challenging the Justice Department’s attempt to hold the city accountable by withholding federal policing grants, which prompted Mayor Kenney to do a giddy victory dance. However, as former AG Jeff Sessions explained, “He is celebrating keeping criminals in Philadelphia that by law should be deported.”

San Diego logo
CA

SAN DIEGO

San Diego – a city of over 1.4 million located near the U.S.-Mexico border – has been an illegal alien sanctuary in practice since April 2014, a policy that was reaffirmed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer (R) in March 2017 (although the mayor simultaneously denies San Diego’s de facto sanctuary status).

Municipal law enforcement does not initiate contact to check immigration status, and it does not report illegal aliens to ICE during the enforcement of minor traffic offenses for infractions and non-bookable misdemeanors including driving without a valid license. It also refuses to detain illegal aliens “in a migrant camp setting for DHS/Border Patrol unless there is a probable cause to arrest for a crime not related to immigration violations.”

In spite of Mayor Faulconer’s opposition, in May 2018 the San Diego City Council voted to join an amicus brief opposing the Trump administration’s lawsuit against sanctuary policies.

San Jose logo
CA

SAN JOSE

A city of more than 1 million people, San Jose has been an illegal alien sanctuary since a March 2007 City Council resolution prohibited arrests of individuals solely on the basis of their unlawful presence in the country. The city’s status as a sanctuary for illegal aliens has been a matter of debate for some time.

In 2011, Santa Clara County, of which San Jose is a part, joined hundreds of other cities in refusing to hold jailed non-citizens until immigration agents could secure custody of them. However, in 2015, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo (D) expressed in a letter to county officials his wish that they reconsider their sanctuary policies.  

In late February 2019, San Jose resident Bambi Larson was brutally murdered by a Salvadoran illegal alien and gang member, a crime which reignited the debate because the accused had been freed multiple times as a result of those policies. Subsequently, San Jose Chief of Police, Eddie Garcia called for the city’s sanctuary stance to be changed, but the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors voted in June of 2019 to retain its sanctuary status.

Columbus, OH logo
OH

COLUMBUS

A city of almost 900,000 residents, Columbus does not refer to itself as a sanctuary city, but follows sanctuary policies. It became a sanctuary city in practice in 2015 when a Police Division Directive was adopted that banned local law enforcement from detaining or arresting illegal aliens for ICE without a warrant or observation of a crime.

The directive also rules out the use of city funds, personnel, etc., “for the sole purpose of detecting or apprehending any person based on … suspected immigration status, except in response to a court order.”

In 2017, Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther (D) issued an executive order stating that “no city department or employee may use city moneys, equipment, or personnel for the sole purpose of detecting or apprehending persons based on suspected immigration status, unless in response to a court order.”

San Francisco, CA logo
CA

SAN FRANCISCO

With a population of 882,000 people, San Francisco is perhaps one of the most infamous sanctuary cities. It was in October 1989 that it confirmed its status as a sanctuary city with the adoption of Chapter 12H of its administrative code. The code affirmed San Francisco as “a City and County of Refuge” and ruled out any immigration detainer compliance except as specifically provided for in the Administrative Code itself.

The official website of the San Francisco Mayor, London Breed (D), proudly and defiantly proclaims that “we are a sanctuary city, now, tomorrow and forever.”

The city’s policies gained national attention after the arrest of a Mexican illegal alien, who had been deported five times and had prior arrests, for killing Kate Steinle on July 1, 2015. After two trials, the case ended up in an acquittal, but the 32-year-old’s murder sparked a national debate over sanctuary policy.

Seattle, WA logo
WA

SEATTLE

A city of 754,000 residents, Seattle has adhered to a policy of not asking – except for some limited exceptions – about immigration status since 2003 as a consequence of an ordinance passed that year. In 2010, to avoid triggering deportations, Seattle prosecutors began asking for criminal sentences of no longer than 364 days (the Oregon legislature made that practice state law in 2011).

In 2016, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (D) pledged to keep its status as a sanctuary city and a year later, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution declaring that the city would not comply with detainers or administrative warrants without “a criminal warrant issued by a federal judge or magistrate.”

A July 2017 City Council ordinance also defined “alienage or citizenship status” and “immigration status” as prohibited classifications. According to the ordinance, the use of such categories constitutes “biased policing,” thus creating a civil cause of action against the city (in other words, opening Seattle up for lawsuits).

Denver, CO logo
CO

DENVER

The City and County of Denver – the capital city of Colorado with a population of 727,000 – became an illegal alien sanctuary on the basis of an April 2014 Sheriff Department memo stating that Denver no longer honors immigration detainers. This was codified into law by a City Council ordinance from August 2017.

Also in 2017, the city stopped sending federal officials its daily booking sheets in order to limit immigration officials awareness of criminal alien activities.

On August 18, 2019, Mexican national Jose Armenta-Vazquez was attempting to burglarize a house in Denver, Colorado, but ran into the homeowner, who was identified as Magistrate Judge David Blackett, and nearly-fatally stabbed them. A month before, the illegal alien had been released by the Denver Sheriff’s Department for the third time despite active immigration detainers. He was arrested for the stabbing in October and, once again, released – despite yet another ICE detainer. He was eventually re-arrested in December and charged in January 2020.