Martha's Vineyard

Is Massachusetts a ‘Sanctuary State'? It's Complicated

Here's what to know about the relationship between Massachusetts and federal governments when it comes to immigration

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When sending two planes of undocumented immigrants to Martha's Vineyard on Wednesday, the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis referred to Massachusetts as a "sanctuary state," along with New York and California.

While there are several policies in place that protect them, the state does not have a sanctuary law in place. But Boston is one of several communities that identifies as a "sanctuary city."

Here's what to know about the relationship between Massachusetts and federal governments when it comes to immigration.

What is a 'sanctuary city' and 'sanctuary state'?

There's no specific legal definition for a sanctuary city or state, but broadly, the term refers to municipalities that don't let local law enforcement agents cooperate with federal immigration enforcement in an effort to shield its community of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Supporters say the designation allows people already in this country to feel safer doing things like calling 911 when they are in danger without fear that speaking with local police or going to a hospital will get them deported. That, in turn, makes communities safer on the whole.

Detractors believe that creating such sanctuaries makes the United States a more inviting place for immigrants to enter without documentation. They often use the phrase to suggest that sanctuary municipalities welcome undocumented immigrants.

The term came into use in the 1980s, when religious groups took in undocumented immigrants amid turmoil in Central America that prompted migration north, and a federal crackdown of undocumented immigration under the Reagan administration. In Massachusetts, Cambridge was the center of the movement, according to Boston College.

Federal crackdowns on people living in the country without documentation surged under the Trump administration, and the sanctuary movement revived with them. Sanctuary designations were the subject of federal legal battles during that period, with the Supreme Court in 2020 declining to overturn a ruling that said

What is Massachusetts' sanctuary status?

In 2017, Massachusetts' top state court ruled that Massachusetts court officers do not have the authority to arrest someone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally if that person is not facing criminal charges, the state's highest court ruled Monday. That's effectively gave the state sanctuary status.

But for years, advocates have tried to get a bill that would codify sanctuary status in Massachusetts, and it hasn't passed, despite Democrats, who tend to support sanctuary status more than Republicans, controlling the Legislature.

The Safe Communities Act would prevent court and police officers from asking about immigration status unless required by law, require people in detention from being interviewed by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to be notified beforehand and more.

Gov. Charlie Baker has opposed a previous version of the bill, writing in 2017, "Our administration does not support making the Commonwealth a sanctuary state."

Which Mass. cities and towns are 'sanctuary cities'?

Boston College created this list of sanctuary communities in Massachusetts, and also refers to Orleans and Holyoke as places that have at least passed measures that at least effectively work to provide sanctuary, even though they may not use the terminology.

NBC10 Boston is reaching out to cities and towns considered sanctuary cities.

Migrants have been arriving at the southwestern U.S. border in record numbers this year, with people from India, Turkey, Russia and other countries who rarely crossed into the country there fueling the surge, NBC News reported this June. Migration from Central America, the traditional driver of immigration at the border, was down.

NBC's Suzanne Ciechalski and Mike Pescaro contributed to this report.

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