Executive Summary

Providing a welcoming safe haven to newcomers and those in need is a principle that has defined and continues to define communities throughout the nation. Policies such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and so-called sanctuary policies adopted by municipalities across the country, have enabled millions of individuals to pursue a better life for themselves and their family. Despite the positive role such commonsense immigration policies play in the lives of all Americans, the current Administration has posed numerous threats to welcoming communities and needed programs like DACA—actions that are in direct violation of our values of equal opportunity and dignity.

In an effort to better understand how members of the public are currently thinking and talking about sanctuary policies and immigration more broadly, and how the mainstream media is currently reporting on the issues, we conducted a three-part analysis of existing public opinion research, media coverage, and social media discourse over an 18-month time frame. Central questions tackled include: What issues and policies currently define the overall immigration debate? How does the current discussion of sanctuary jurisdictions intersect with DACA, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), 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?

Public opinion and social media discourse indicate that a plurality of Americans understand the importance of remaining a welcoming country, while the majority consistently support a pathway to citizenship for immigrants currently in the United States. Despite these positive trends, public opinion and social media data also suggest that many segments of the public’s views on immigration are extremely malleable, particularly when immigration is framed in the context of crime and public safety. The conflation between immigration and public safety has come to dominate media coverage of sanctuary jurisdictions in recent months, reflecting the pressing need for coordinated messaging among pro-immigrant advocates and policymakers. In an era where anti-immigrant and openly xenophobic rhetoric is becoming more prominent in political discourse, understanding how to effectively challenge such discourse, and tell compelling and affirmative stories about the integral role immigrants play in our nation, will prove vital. 

Our goal is to provide pro-immigrant advocates, policymakers, activists, and media commentators with a clear understanding of the current public discourse across a variety of media, trends over time, and strategies for how to galvanize public support for immigration policies that support all communities.

Major research findings include:

Social Media Analysis

  • References to sanctuary cities have increased significantly in social media discourse in recent months: Between January 2016 and November 2016, references to “sanctuary cities” went from occupying five percent of the total conversation (based on the search terms included in our monitor; See: Methodology) to 19 percent of the total conversation.
  • The language associated with sanctuary jurisdictions and deportation has shifted, with references to Donald Trump and crime seeing a sharp increase in online discussions: Since February 2017, talk of crime and public safety has become even more closely tied to “sanctuary cities”. Specifically, references to “crime,” “criminal,” and “criminals” in relation to “sanctuary cities”, deportation, and the other search terms included in our monitor went from occupying just four percent of posts in January 2017 to occupying eight percent of posts during February 2017.
  • Online audiences are not connecting anti-sanctuary/immigration policies to the issue of racial profiling: Audiences engaging in online discussions of “sanctuary cities” and related issues are not generally connecting immigration enforcement by police to increased racial profiling. These topics currently occupy distinct clusters within our monitor, indicating that the current conversation of racial profiling (in relation to “sanctuary cities” and deportation) occupies a less prominent space within the overall discourse.
  • Pro-immigrant voices currently dominate online discussion of sanctuary policies, particularly on Twitter: Between January 2016 and June 2017, a number of individuals from both the public and private sectors spoke out openly about immigration policy, the most influential of which tended to be progressive, pro-immigrant advocates, elected officials, and policymakers. Alongside individual influencers, a significant portion of the most influential online content originated from immigrant advocate organizations such as the Vera Institute and the ACLU, both organizations that topped the list of the most prolific voices on Twitter based on the volume of tweets, mentions, and potential audience reach.
  • Texas SB4 legislation is a major concern of online audiences engaging in discussions related to sanctuary jurisdictions: Within the last 18 months, Texas-related hashtags are among the top hashtags being used to discuss sanctuary jurisdictions. This is a direct result of the passage of SB4, and #SB4 is the top hashtag in our monitor, generating over 100,000 posts within the period examined. Alongside references to SB4, top hashtags also include #MAGA, #Trump, and #tcot, hashtags that have generated significantly more audience engagement than the pro-immigrant hashtag #HereToStay.
  • Twitter users engaging in conversations about sanctuary jurisdictions have interests that are distinct from the overall population of Twitter: Overall, both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant audience segments have interests that are unique from the overall population of Twitter. Within the 18-month examined, anti-immigrant Twitter users who engaged in conversations about sanctuary jurisdictions were 213 times more likely to have a strong interest in Glenn Beck than the general population of Twitter. Glenn Beck tops of the list of interests among anti-immigrant Twitter users included in our audience segment. Pro-immigrant users in comparison, were significantly more likely to have an interest in immigration law, (779 times more likely than the general population of Twitter), 115 times more likely to have a strong interest in gun safety, and 79 times more likely to have a strong interest in the Affordable Care Act compared to the general population of Twitter. Alongside gun safety and the affordable care act, pro-immigrant Twitter users discussing sanctuary policies also had a strong interest in NBC News, NPR, progressive politics, and “celebrity” compared to the general population of Twitter. Pro-immigrant audiences’ shared interest in “celebrity” appears specific to celebrities and entertainers who have been outspoken on social media about social justice issues, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ellen DeGeneres, and Christine Teigen.

Public Opinion Analysis

  • The public is divided on support for sanctuary jurisdictions, particularly when discussed in the context of crime: Our analysis of existing public opinion research revealed that the context in which sanctuary jurisdictions and policies are discussed has a significant impact on the level of public support for such policies. For instance, when respondents were asked in one survey if they agree or disagree that “cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes should be required to turn them over to immigration authorities,” 80 percent of survey participants were in agreement with this statement.[3] However, when a different survey removed references to “crime” and instead presented respondents with the option between two statements— “undocumented immigrants should be deported so there is no reason to have sanctuary cities” or “sanctuary cities are needed to provide services to undocumented immigrants while they are needed”—41 percent of respondents were in agreement with the “no reason” statement, and 50 percent agreed that sanctuary cities are needed.[4]
  • There is a strong correlation between the perception of safety and the willingness to support sanctuary jurisdictions/policies: Survey data also indicates that the perception of crime and safety is currently playing a major role in shaping perceptions of sanctuary jurisdictions. In the same survey, when asked about their perception of the safety of “sanctuary cities”, 40 percent of all voters believed sanctuary communities are less safe than cities without sanctuary policies, compared to 35 percent of respondents who think the level of safety is about the same, while 17 percent believe that sanctuary communities are safer.[5]
  • Low income Americans and those with less education are more likely to oppose living in sanctuary jurisdictions: Forty-one percent of individuals earning $200K+ expressed that they favor living in a sanctuary community, compared to just 25 percent of individuals who earn under $30,000 annually, and 34 percent of individuals earning between $50,000-$100,000 annually. A similar divergence in opinion is seen when examining responses based on education. Only 28 percent of respondents who are high school graduates favor living in a sanctuary city. This compares to 31 percent of individuals who graduated college, and 49 percent of individuals who attended graduate school.[6]
  • Americans favor a roadmap to citizenship and programs such as DACA over increased deportation efforts as a solution to undocumented immigration: In a November 2016 survey of over 1,000 registered voters, respondents were presented with the following statement: “Donald Trump has said he will repeal a policy that provides deportation relief and work authorization to immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children….If Trump repeals this policy, these immigrants will be subject to immediate deportation, loss of jobs, and the federal government’s use of their personal information.” With this context in mind, respondents were asked their level of support for repealing the policy. Just 28 percent of respondent’s support Trump’s plans to repeal the program as of November 2016, compared to 58 percent who oppose a repeal.[7]
  • The majority of Americans oppose the withholding of federal funds from sanctuary jurisdictions: In an executive order issued in January 2017, the Trump administration threatened to withhold federal funding from sanctuary jurisdictions. Survey and polling data shows there is rising opposition to punitive immigration policies since Trump’s presidential victory. As of February 2017, 53 percent of those surveyed indicated they oppose the federal government cutting funds to cities that provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, compared to 42 percent who support the measure, and 5 percent who were unsure.[8] 
  • Americans are ambivalent about the introduction of a “merit-based” immigration system: In recent months, Donald Trump has called for the movement toward so-called “merit-based” immigration as opposed to the current family-based system, which enables individuals to sponsor family members for entry into the United States. The “merit-based system” proposed by Trump would instead award points based on high-paying job offers, English-language ability and education—a system which if implemented could threaten the reunification of thousands of families.[9] Polling responses indicate that Americans are ambivalent when it comes to support or opposition to a merit-based system. In an April 2017 survey, a plurality of those surveyed (44 percent) were in support of moving to a merit-based system, 37 percent favored keeping the existing family-based system, and another 18 percent were not sure about which system they preferred.[10]

Media Content Analysis

  • There is significant variation in the use and definition of the term sanctuary cities”: Media coverage between August 2016 and August 2017 exposed significant variations in the use and definition of “sanctuary cities”—a term that has now become a catchall for a variety of policies and legislation. A significant portion of media coverage focused on trying to provide clarification around what “sanctuary cities” entail and the implications of new policies for counties and cities (and to a lesser extent colleges and universities) around the country.
  • A focus on public safety and rule of law dominated media coverage related to sanctuary jurisdictions/policies between August 2016 and August 2017: The majority of coverage within this category featured an anti-immigrant spokesperson (often an elected official/policymaker), voicing concerns that “sanctuary cities” are a threat to public safety and the “rule of law.” More than half of articles within this category made references to undocumented immigrants committing crime, with several articles making specific reference to a single case - the 2015 murder of Kathryn Steinle.
  • Anti-immigrant quotes are highly consistent in both message and source of quote: Anti-immigrant voices were extremely consistent in terms of the sources of quote, with the vast majority of quotes from anti-immigrant elected officials coming from Donald Trump and Jeff Session. Anti-immigrant advocate voices were dominated by quotes from the Center of Immigration Studies, a self-identified “independent, non-partisan” research organization that has been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.
  • Reaction to Trumps executive order and other anti-immigrant policies feature heavily in media coverage: The vast majority of coverage since the release of the executive order has focused on the implications the order presents for cities and counties around the country. This includes stories detailing the reaction of elected officials to the content of the executive order, and the potential loss of federal funding faced by many jurisdictions.



[3] Harvard Harris Poll, “Inaugural Harvard-Harris Poll,” February 17, 2017

[4] McClathy-Marist Poll, August 2015. Retrieved from IROPER database November 1, 2017.

[5] Rasmussen Reports, “National Survey of 1,000 U.S. Likely Voters,” March, 2017. Retrieved June 16, 2017.

[6] Rasmussen Reports, “National Survey of 1,000 U.S. Likely Voters,” March, 2017. Retrieved June 16, 2017.

[7] Global Strategy Group, November 2016. Retrieved June 16, 2017.

[8] McClathy-Marist Poll, February 2017. Retrieved June 1, 2017.

[9] Barros, Aline, “Merit-based Versus Family-based Immigration Explained,” VOANews, October 11, 2017. Retrieved November 1, 2017. 

[10] Ibid.