Frequently Asked Questions about Local City-level Immigration Policies

Questions related to Seattle's Welcoming City Policies

The terminology of "Sanctuary City" can often be misused, misinterpreted, or misunderstood. To emphasize the true intent of Seattle, we prefer to use the term "Welcoming City," which means all City departments prioritize and consider policies, actions, and practices that help immigrant and refugee communities succeed.

To also be more specific regarding Seattle's municipal code related to undocumented immigrants, we prefer the terminology of "don't ask" policies.

More information about Seattle as a Welcoming City is here.

City employees do not ask about immigration status. Passed in 2003, Seattle Ordinance 121063 instructs all City employees to refrain from inquiring about the immigration status of any person, except police officers where they have a reasonable suspicion of a felony criminal law violation or have knowledge that a person has been previously deported.

Seattle is committed to the values of equity and inclusion, which guide us to support the most vulnerable residents in our city. This includes both implementing solutions to homelessness and support for veterans and seniors, while also defending immigrants and refugees who are being targeted by the Trump Administration. Immigrants with a variety of statuses pay local and federal taxes, run successful businesses and nonprofit organizations, volunteer for a number of civic institutions, and have long contributed to Seattle's economic success and vibrant culture.

The City does not have jurisdiction over deportations. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is charged with enforcing civil federal immigration violations, which includes deportations. Police officers within the city will ask for your status if there is reasonable suspicion a felony was committed or knowledge that a person was previously deported.

This "don't ask" policy allows our police department to build strong relationships within immigrant and refugee communities, which makes them safer. Crime is statistically significantly lower in so-called "sanctuary counties" compared to "non-sanctuary counties," and economies are stronger in so-called "sanctuary counties" compared to "non-sanctuary counties." For more information, see this report.

The City of Seattle does not have the jurisdictional authority to deport immigrants, whether criminal or not. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is charged with enforcing civil federal immigration violations, which includes deportation proceedings. Additionally, Seattle does not oversee the jails. King County has jurisdiction over the jail system. Therefore, the City defers to King County on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests. A "detainer request" refers to the practice of detaining an individual for an additional two days after their release date in order to provide ICE agents extra time to take that individual into federal custody for potential deportation.

In 2014, King County enacted Ordinance 17866, which states that the County will only honor ICE detainers that are accompanied by a federal judicial warrant. Then in February of 2018, King County adopted additional guidelines to strengthen the previous ordinance, including prohibiting the use of county resources to take any actions not required by state and federal law that collaborate with ICE.

These ordinances were based on several federal court decisions since 2013 finding ICE in violation of Fourth Amendment rights for imprisoning people without due process and, in many cases, without any charges pending or probable cause of any violation. In these court decisions, local jurisdictions that complied with ICE detainer requests were found liable and required to pay damages. See Question 10 for more details.

The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution clearly states that the federal government cannot coerce local jurisdictions to adopt federal regulations as their own as President Trump's Executive Order asks police departments to do. We recommend reading this article about how U.S. Supreme Court precedent supports this assertion.

The City of Seattle makes no distinction between residents, as per our "don't ask" policy in Seattle Ordinance 121063 passed in 2003, which dictates that City employees may not inquire about immigration status.

Both documented and unauthorized residents collectively share all costs. Unauthorized immigrants living in the United States pay billions of dollars each year in state and local taxes. They pay sales and excise taxes when they purchase goods and services (for example, on utilities, clothing, and gasoline). They pay property taxes directly on their homes or indirectly as renters. According to the bipartisan think-tank New American Economy, immigrants of any status in the Seattle Metropolitan Area paid approximately $6.5 billion in taxes. For more information, see this report.

Whether or not you are a citizen, you have rights under the U.S. Constitution. Under the Fifth Amendment, regardless of your citizenship status, you have the right to remain silent and not answer questions asked by a police officer or government agent. Under the First Amendment, regardless of your citizenship status, you have the right to speak freely and advocate for social change. For more about this, see this National Lawyers Guild report. There are a few rights reserved solely for citizens, namely the right to vote and the right to run for certain elected offices.

Detaining a person without a federal arrest warrant, which ICE often requests local jurisdictions to do, is illegal. A number of federal courts have ruled that local jurisdictions cannot constitutionally hold someone on a detainer without a warrant or probable cause. The Fourth Amendment provides an important check on the government's ability to arrest and detain people. Eroding that check would endanger civil liberties for everyone, including U.S. citizens. Forcing a jurisdiction to violate the Constitution - whether directly or whether by threatening to withhold much-needed financial support - is illegal.

Threats to withhold federal funds for jurisdictions with "sanctuary" or "don't ask" policies also raise serious constitutional concerns. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the 10th Amendment prevents the federal government from compelling states or cities to enforce federal laws. For example, the Supreme Court upheld key provisions of the Affordable Care Act in 2012, but ruled unconstitutional the provision that would have blocked federal Medicaid funding to states that did not accept expansion to cover millions more low-income and disabled people. University of Washington School of Law professor Hugh Spitzer offers this legal analysis related to this issue.

Actually, the federal courts have not only ruled that it is illegal to detain a person without a federal arrest warrant, but local jurisdictions that do so in compliance with ICE detainer requests are also liable for financial damages.

Numerous studies across the political spectrum - from the progressive Center for American Progress to the libertarian CATO Institute - have demonstrated that crime rates are lower among sanctuary counties than non-sanctuary counties. The CATO study even found that unauthorized immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than Americans born here. Here is another analysis showing no connection between undocumented immigrants and crime rates.

The ICE detainer requests are also bad policy because it undermines the ability of local jurisdictions to build community trust that is tantamount for public safety. Mayor Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best understand that Seattle's shift to community policing requires the cooperation and trust of every member of the community, particularly foreign-born residents who have experienced law enforcement as repressive and corrupt institutions in their home countries. We recommend reading this American Immigration Council article about community policing.

If local law enforcement is viewed as an arm of federal immigration enforcement efforts, that community trust is undermined and immigrant and refugee residents who may otherwise come forward to report or help solve crimes will be less willing to do so. It is the responsibility of the federal government to enforce immigration laws and the responsibility of local officials to keep their communities safe.

Questions from concerned immigrants and refugees

Understandably, the federal administration's executive orders relating to immigrants and refugees have caused considerable fear and uncertainty in our local communities. We have compiled this list of frequently asked questions for immigrant and refugee community members.

This FAQ or "Frequently Asked Questions" section contains general information, and is not legal advice. If you have questions about your particular status or use of benefits, you should speak with an immigration attorney or DOJ-accredited representative. You can find a lawyer through the American Immigration Lawyers Association here.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent can only enter your home if they have a warrant signed by a judge. A warrant signed by an ICE staff member is not enough for an agent to enter your home.

You can find more Know Your Rights information from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project here.

Yes, if your owner or manager gives permission, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer is free to ask you questions about your immigration status. However, you have the right to remain silent and talk to a lawyer before you answer any questions.

It may be time to create what is called a "family safety plan." We recommend consulting an immigration advocate or immigration lawyer about the legal documents you should have prepared and signed in the event where your children can stay in the country, but you are detained and/or deported.

Make sure all your children's important documentation and copies of this documentation are stored in a place where other family members and friends can access. Give the school an alternative emergency contact to avoid having the school calling the police if your child is not picked up.

More information about family safety planning is here.

To confirm whether an individual has been detained and where they are being held, you can use the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detainee Locator: To use this tool, you will either need the individual's A# (alien registration number) and country of birth or their full name and country of birth.

Immigrants generally do not have the right to legal representation, so you can hire a private attorney if you are financially able to do so. You might also qualify for help from the Seattle/King County Immigrant Legal Defense Network.

If you are undocumented/unauthorized or have doubts about your current immigration status, then advocates recommend that you should not visit the Northwest Detention Center or any immigrant detention facility.

For more information about a potential visit, go to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project's page.

If in process or just recently happened, call 911.

You can also anonymously report discriminatory harassment at the Seattle Office of Civil Rights (SOCR).

You can report the incident over the phone at SOCR by calling (206) 233-7100. (Over-the-phone interpretation available.)

You can report the incident online by going here:

Immigrant and Refugee Affairs

Hamdi Mohamed, Director
Address: 700 5th Ave, Suite 1616, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94573, Seattle, WA, 98124
Phone: (206) 727-8515

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The mission of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs is to improve the lives of Seattle’s immigrant and refugee communities by engaging them in decisions about the City of Seattle’s future and improving the City’s programs and services to meet the needs of all constituents.