New Report Highlights How Local Criminal Justice Policies Undercut the Promise of “Sanctuary” Cities

Margot Friedman at

Contact: Margot Friedman at or 202-332-5550

New Report Highlights How Local Criminal Justice Policies Undercut the Promise of “Sanctuary” Cities

Mayors, City Councils Pressured to Get Rid of Harmful Policies that Put Immigrants at Risk

Local criminal justice policies, such as vagrancy laws and cash bail requirements, endanger vulnerable immigrant populations and undercut the promise of “sanctuary” cities, according to a report released today by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, the Immigrant Defense Project, and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. The report urges city and county leaders who want to protect immigrants to act swiftly to end harmful criminal justice practices that criminalize poverty and send undocumented residents into the deportation pipeline.

The report states, “Broken windows [policing] and other policies that harshly penalize low-level offenses have laid the groundwork for President Trump to identify, and then deport, immigrants charged with the smallest infractions: urinating in public, driving without a license, subway turnstile jumping, or using a small quantity of marijuana, among others. This deliberate incarceration is alarming in its own right. For those worried about mass deportations, it is terrifying.”

“The harsh reality is that any contact with the criminal justice system that a non-citizen has, however small, creates a serious risk that ICE will intervene,” the report continues. “A mere arrest can trigger an ICE alert—not only for individuals here without authorization, but also for asylees, lawful permanent residents, and others here with valid status.”

Unfortunately, some of America’s most progressive cities claiming to be sanctuaries cling to ineffective, outdated, and potentially dangerous criminal justice policies, including “broken windows” policing, harsh drug laws, and burdensome cash bail requirements. 

“If mayors truly want to protect immigrants from deportation, they need to act swiftly to end harmful criminal justice practices that criminalize poverty,” said Jessica Brand, legal director for the Fair Punishment Project.

  • In New York, the Police Department arrests people for selling single cigarettes, jumping subway turnstiles, or trespassing.
  • Philadelphia still has ordinances in place against begging and panhandling and sleeping on streets.
  • Los Angeles has, according to a 2016 study by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law, 15 laws against “sitting, standing, and resting,” eight laws against “sleeping, camping, and lodging,” and nine laws against “begging and panhandling.”
  • Phoenix has broad prohibitions against “camping” on any city property, including sleeping activities, or making preparations to sleep, including the laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping, or storing personal belongings, or making any fire, or using any tents or shelter or other structure or vehicle for sleeping or doing any digging or earth breaking or carrying on cooking activities.
  • In Portland, Oregon, the Multnomah County District Attorney has a “Neighborhood Unit” that focuses on prosecuting low-level, “quality-of-life” offenses such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, and public urination.

“It is inspiring that many cities, from Portland to New York, have local leaders who have boldly declared their cities to be ‘sanctuary’ cities, but unless these leaders work to mitigate the risk that harsh criminal justice policies impose on all citizens, especially immigrants, the promise of sanctuary will be meaningless,” Brand continued.

Robert J. Smith, director for the Fair Punishment Project, added, “Prosecutors have broad discretion over how they enforce the law. They should consider immigration consequences at every stage of process, immediately stop asking for cash bail, and support the decriminalization of certain low level offenses. It’s not enough to support sanctuary policies, prosecutors need to actively use their discretion to protect immigrants who pose no danger to society from deportation.”

The report proposes eight commonsense reforms that local jurisdictions can adopt to protect the promise of sanctuary cities, including ending all local collusion with ICE, the elimination of cash bail, and the decriminalization of certain low-level infractions.

To speak with the report’s authors or representatives of the three organizations, please contact Margot Friedman at or 202-332-5550.


Immigrant Defense Project (IDP)
The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) fights for the human rights of immigrants
in the criminal legal and immigration systems. IDP has played a critical role in supporting successful campaigns to limit ICE-police collaboration, and in developing and advocating for innovative criminal justice reforms that benefit both noncitizens and citizens.

Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC)
Since 1979, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) has stood at the forefront of defending the rights of the entire immigrant community, regardless of legal status, prior contact with the criminal justice system, or income. Over thirty
years ago, ILRC pioneered “crim-imm” work in the state of California through its trainings and manuals dedicated to raising the standard of practice for the defense of immigrants in criminal proceedings.

Fair Punishment Project
The Fair Punishment Project uses legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable. As a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, we work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyering, and racial bias, and to highlight the unconstitutional use of excessive punishment.