Immigration Explainers

The Government Law Center publishes explainers—short policy papers—designed to help policymakers and others understand the complex laws that apply to state and local governments' choices about immigration policy.  Each explainer briefly reviews the law in a specific area, and provides links to further resources.

Gun Sanctuaries and 'Sanctuaries for the Unborn' in New York State

The term “sanctuary cities” is commonly used in the field of immigration to refer to communities that decline to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. But recently, other movements have used the term “sanctuary cities” to refer to other causes unrelated to immigration. In particular, Second Amendment activists and anti-abortion activists have urged local governments to adopt ordinances that protect gun ownership and restrict abortion. This explainer examines the legal and policy issues surrounding these movements.


Litigation Update: Counties sue New York State over Driver's Licenses

Most Department of Motor Vehicles offices in the state are operated by independently elected county clerks as agents of the DMV.  Some county clerks have expressed their intent to defy the new state law and not issue licenses to newly eligible immigrants.  Three counties have filed lawsuits in federal court challenging the law as unconstitutional and asking the court to stop its implementation. This explainer summarizes the arguments asserted in the county lawsuits. 


State Criminal Law and Immigration

While the federal government makes the ultimate decision whether to admit or deport a noncitizen, the states often play a crucial role.  Several provisions of the federal immigration law rely on crimes that are defined, charged, and sentenced at the state level.  This explainer will outline several ways in which states are exercising their authority over state criminal law and procedure to influence federal immigration enforcement.


When Local Law-Enforcement Officers Become ICE Deputies: 287(g) Agreements

The role of state and local law enforcement in carrying out federal immigration law varies from one municipality to another. Traditionally a federal power, immigration enforcement is increasingly dependent upon willing state and local law enforcement agencies to execute federal priorities. While the vast majority of state and local law enforcement agencies have remained neutral—neither accepting nor declining to enforce federal immigration law—some state and local law enforcement agencies have willingly taken up the charge.


Driver's Licenses and Undocumented Immigrants


The issuance of driver's licenses is a state function.  Each state is responsible for determining the requirements to acquire a license in that state, including proofs of identity and residency.  An increasing number of states are considering whether to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.  This explainer will outline the legal basis for extending driving privileges to undocumented immigrants, including the limitations on states imposed by the federal REAL ID Act.



a green street sign sitting on the side of a road

Municipal IDs: Local Governments and the Power to Create Identity Documents

In an effort to better integrate their immigrant communities, a number of local governments across the country are issuing resident identification cards known as "municipal IDs."  This explainer will outline the various reasons a local government may choose to create a municipal ID and the mechanisms by which such a program may be adopted.  It will then discuss how municipal IDs interact with state and federal law, and some of the privacy and other concerns that have arisen in localities across the country with municipal IDs.



Immigrants and Public Benefits: What Must States and Localities Provide?

Public benefits for noncitizens are a source of great controversy, but exactly what public benefits do noncitizens receive?  The Equal Protection Clause generally requires that states and localities give noncitizens the same benefits as citizens.  But Congress sometimes requires that states and localities treat noncitizens differently.  This Explainer reviews the laws that govern this complicated area, and offers resources for people trying to navigate it. 



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"Sanctuary" Jurisdictions 

Although the topic of "sanctuary" jurisdictions is much-discussed, the term "sanctuary" has no legal meaning.  State and local governments face a complicated set of choices about how to interact with federal immigration authorities.  Four major policy questions must be considered.

 First, states and localities have to decide whether to contribute resources to federal immigration enforcement efforts. Second, they must decide whether to detain noncitizens at the request of federal authorities. Third, jurisdictions can limit the extent to which they share information about noncitizens with the federal government—although every jurisdiction, even "sanctuaries," shares significant amounts of information about noncitizens.  Finally, states and localities may try to limit the extent to which immigration agents can physically access state-controlled properties, like jails and courthouses. 

 In each area, there is a spectrum of choices available, from full cooperation to neutrality to active resistance.  This explainer identifies the actions state and local governments have taken, and identifies resources for policymakers who wish to learn more.


U Visas

A U Visa is a temporary visa for victims of certain crimes who have been helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. The purpose of the U Visa is to "strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to detect, investigate, and prosecute" certain serious crimes and to protect victims.

The U Visa is an important tool for local governments to build trust with immigrant crime victims and communities and to strengthen enforcement efforts against those who target immigrants. This explainer gives an overview of the U Visa and the role of state and local government officials in the U Visa process.