Can They Do That? (Part 2): End Sanctuary Cities

By John Spangler
Associate Editor, Volume 23

It is not just the long election cycle that is a defining feature of Michigan politics today, but also the impact of term limits on who seeks what office.  The current incumbent is forced out by that constitutional measure, and the candidate to replace him is himself subject to the term limits placed on the state House of Representatives.  As part of our continuing series, Can They Do That?, today we examine a signature issue from the campaign of Tom Leonard.

Speaker Leonard is currently in charge of Michigan’s lower legislative body.[1]  He was first elected to represent the 93rd District in 2012,[2] and as a result is ineligible to run again.[3]  In keeping with the “up or out” ethos created by these term limits, Speaker Leonard is seeking the office of Attorney General, citing his previous experience as a Genesee County prosecutor and assistant state attorney general during Mike Cox’s tenure.[4] Public safety is a core part of his new campaign, including a promise to “end sanctuary cities”.[5]

So, if elected Michigan Attorney General, can he do that?  Well, that depends on a number of factors, not least of which is what Speaker Leonard means by “sanctuary city” and by “end”.  The most common definition of “sanctuary city” is a city or municipality that has, by rule or ordinance, limited what local law enforcement can do to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) against those with immigration violations.[6]  Even within this definition there can be a lot of variety, with cities such as San Francisco that prohibit cooperation with ICE while using city resources,[7] as well as communities like Chester County, Virginia, that simply refuse to automatically detain suspected immigrants.[8]

In fact, a lot of the alarmism over “sanctuary cities,” and subsequently the counting thereof, comes from groups with clear advocacy positions.  One notable group, the Center for Immigration Studies, publishes what it claims to be a comprehensive list of “sanctuary communities,”[9] defined as communities with any policy that “obstructs ICE”.[10]  This broad definition lets them count over 300 such communities, but none of them are in Michigan.[11]  The Center has been slammed for its white nationalist leanings and been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center,[12] but even they do not see policies to criticize in this state.

Certainly, it is not for lack of trying.  Detroit and Ann Arbor both have policies for their respective police forces that prohibit unnecessary inquiries into immigration status.[13]  But both cities also cooperate with federal authorities.[14]  The City of Lansing passed a measure declaring itself a “sanctuary city” in April of 2017, with light-touch rules similar to Detroit and Ann Arbor.[15]  The city council rescinded the measure just a week later.[16]

If no Michigan city is calling itself a “sanctuary city” or taking affirmative steps to obstruct immigration enforcement, what will Speaker Leonard be trying to put an end to?  We can find some hint in Michigan House Bills 4105 and 4334.  Introduced in early 2017, the bills would prohibit municipalities and counties from enacting “any law, ordinance, policy, or rule that limits or prohibits a peace officer…from communicating or cooperating with appropriate federal officials concerning the immigration status of an individual in this state.”[17]  Under that language, it seems likely that even the light-touch “don’t ask” limitations would be prohibited, and at its most extreme could expose localities to suit from the Attorney General’s office should they refuse to be commandeered by ICE.  The bills were referred to committee, and seem likely to die there,[18] but they are part of a broader pattern of preemption that the state legislature has undertaken to kneecap Democrat-controlled localities.  Over the past several years, the legislature has cut off local action on everything from plastic bag bans, to soda taxes, to even the local minimum wage.[19]  If elected Attorney General, Speaker Leonard could choose to support and advocate these tactics, provided Michigan Republicans hold on to the legislature.

But that prerequisite is not guaranteed.  A Republican legislature and governor could enact more restrictions to give the Attorney General tools to punish municipalities.  But even should the party hold those offices, there is no guarantee these co-equal branches of government will make that a priority.  Can other, unilateral action be taken through the office’s administrative roles?  The Attorney General provides legal oversight to state departments, including social services and the Michigan State Police[20] and in that capacity could issue new guidance for state officers to more closely examine citizenship, whether for people in custody or just dealing with the state government.  Leonard would also have the power to allocate assistant attorneys general, state investigators, and other resources towards assisting federal immigration enforcement.  This prerogative of office has shifted resources in many such ways over the years, from the initiative to enforce delinquent child support payments by Mike Cox, to the dwindling number of consumer protection cases brought by Bill Schuette.[21]

Perhaps the greatest utility of the office to reach the goal of “ending sanctuary cities” is the bully pulpit.  As a statewide elected office, the Attorney General’s platform serves an expressive purpose.  Should Speaker Leonard advocate for tougher immigration enforcement, whether or not it falls to that office to undertake it, he will be representing the people of Michigan as a whole.  This means he will be able to command attention to the issue, drive party platforms, and support or deter candidates and policies in other levels or branches of government that pertain to the issue.  An attorney general’s approval or disapproval can mean a lot to a bill or municipal ordinance.

So, can Speaker Leonard, if elected Attorney General, “end sanctuary cities”?  It seems unlikely.  It’s possible the state legislature could, with his support, enact preemptive legislation constraining municipalities like in HB 4105, but even that bill did not pass even in the honeymoon phase of the Trump administration’s first hundred days.  After what is likely to be a contentious and close 2018 election, such measures seem destined to die in committee.  Without broad legislative action, the attorney general lacks significant influence on immigration issues, outside of their bully pulpit.  Finally, since no municipality in Michigan currently calls itself a “sanctuary city,” and even those who wish to be immigrant-friendly still cooperate with federal authorities, there does not even seem to be a problem for Speaker Leonard to remedy.  In the end, his pledge to “end sanctuary cities” is yet another piece of political puffery, and unlikely to result in concrete action.


To read Part I of this series, click here.

[1] Michigan House of Representatives, Michigan House Leadership,

[2] Michigan House Republicans, Tom Leonard, District 93,

[3] Michigan Constitution, Article IV § 54.

[4] Tom Leonard for Attorney General, About,

[5] Tom Leonard for Attorney General, Why I’m Running,

[6] Van Le, America’s Voice, Immigration 101: What is a Sanctuary City?,

[7] City of San Fransisco, Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs, Sanctuary City Ordinance,

[8] Peter Galuszka, Washington Post, What are sanctuary cities, anyway?, Nov. 6, 2017,

[9] Center for Immigration Studies, Maps: Sanctuary Cities, Counties, and States,

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Heidi Beirich, Hatewatch, Southern Poverty Law Center, Hate groups like Center for Immigration Studies want you to believe they’re mainstream, Mar. 23, 2017,

[13] Jonathan Oosting, MLive, Push to ban ‘sanctuary cities’ in Michigan faces criticism from immigration advocates, Sep. 30, 2015,

[14] Id.

[15] Michael Gerstein, The Detroit News, Michigan’s first ‘sanctuary city’ sparks anger, praise, Aper. 5, 2017,

[16] Lauren Gibbons, MLive, Lansing no longer a sanctuary city, Apr. 12, 2017,

[17] Michigan HB 4105, page 2,

[18] Michigan HB 4105, Bill Actions,

[19] Kathleen Grey, Detroit Free Press, Republicans taking bite out of local control, stopping ordinances before they start, Oct. 16, 2017,

[20] Department of Attorney General, Can I obtain an Attorney General’s Opinion on a legal matter?,,4534,7-359-81903_83221_48126-181949–,00.html.

[21] See generally Biennial Report of the Attorney General,,4534,7-359-81903_82699—,00.html (listing cases started and closed, by section and legal area).