Redefining Sanctuary

Analysis of public attitudes and media coverage of sanctuary jurisdictions and related immigration policies


This past February, as media reports began to circulate detailing a surge in Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) raids in communities across the country, Americans took to social media to offer support and warnings to their neighbors. In the days that followed, as the true scope of the raids became evident, city leaders issued defiant messages critiquing the raids and reaffirming their support of immigrant communities. These efforts on the part of members of the public and elected officials crystallize the providing of refuge and safety at the core of the principle of ‘sanctuary’— a principle that defines the communities across the country, currently providing much needed legal protection to undocumented immigrants and their families.

A sanctuary jurisdiction can be defined as a locality that limits its participation in federal immigration enforcement efforts as a matter of policy. There are an estimated 47 sanctuary jurisdictions in the United States as of December 2016,[1] which, alongside policies like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), have enabled tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants to secure better paying jobs, and to pursue otherwise-unavailable education opportunities.[2]

Despite the integral role such immigration policies continue to play, the new administration has taken persistent steps to undo them. In recent months, there has been an increase in aggressive immigration enforcement policies, the latest of which includes the ending of DAPA and DACA programs initiated by President Obama.

In the face of these challenges, local governments, immigrant rights’ advocates, and policymakers have reaffirmed their commitment to the protection of immigrant communities. However, central to their continued success will be understanding how key audiences are currently thinking and talking about pro-immigration policies and immigration more broadly, and developing effective strategies to challenge anti-immigrant discourse. What issues and policies currently define the sanctuary jurisdictions debate? How does the current discussion of sanctuary jurisdictions intersect with DACA, and overall discussions of immigration in media coverage, social media discourse, and public opinion? How can pro-immigrant advocates ensure the continued support of immigrants and their families in an increasingly anti-immigrant climate? Finally, how can pro-immigrant advocates continue to uplift the voices and leadership of immigrants in a climate where many may feel reluctant to speak out?

In an effort to answer these critical questions, we embarked on a three-part analysis, which consisted of an examination of existing public opinion research, a content analysis of media coverage, and an analysis of social media discourse since January 2016.

Our analysis of existing public opinion research revealed that when asked specifically about deportation policies and levels of support for programs such as DACA, the majority of Americans support the protection of due process that sanctuary jurisdictions provide and, critically, oppose the types of aggressive deportation efforts promoted by the current administration. Our examination of social media data shows there is currently fertile ground for social justice advocates seeking to protect sanctuary jurisdictions and challenge misinformation that attempts to conflate the protection of undocumented immigrants with the promotion of crime. At the same time, our analysis of media coverage over a 20-month period suggests there is currently a pressing need for more coordinated messaging among pro-immigrant advocates. 

This report begins with an overview of our findings from our analysis of social media trends over an 18-month period, followed by findings from our analysis of existing public opinion research, and mainstream media coverage. We conclude with a series of recommendations for messaging and audience engagement through social media outreach. 


[1] Kenna, Ruairi, Politico, “Sanctuary cities stand firm against Trump,” December 2016,

[2] Center for American Progress, “State-by-State Analysis of the Economic Impact of DACA, DAPA, and DACA Expansion,” June 2015. Retrieved June 19, 2017.