On July 14, 2010, a week after suing the state of Arizona over S.B. 1070 for “interfering” with the enforcement of federal immigration law, the Obama Administration said it would not sue sanctuary cities that defiantly refuse to cooperate with enforcing federal immigration law. Cities with sanctuary policies impede the ability of federal authorities to enforce immigration law, such as by barring local police from asking suspects about their immigration status, even though the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 expressly prohibits state and local governments from doing so.

A Justice Department spokeswoman attempted to explain the distinction by saying “[t]here is a big difference between a state or locality saying they are not going to use their resources to enforce a federal law, as so-called sanctuary cities have done, and a state passing its own immigration policy that actively interferes with federal law.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) pointed out the real reason why the Administration sued Arizona to stop “a patchwork” of immigration laws, but has been perfectly content to ignore a “patchwork of sanctuary-city laws.” He explained: the “only immigration policy that the Obama Administration favors is one that allows illegal immigrants to remain in the United States.”

In subsequent years, Rep. Smith’s statement proved prescient as the Administration continued to sue those states that passed laws meant to discourage illegal immigration, and ignore those that flouted the enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws. Unfortunately, individual citizens themselves are generally not able to establish the standing to sue their local officials for violations of federal law such as those involved in sanctuary policies. Therefore, the Administration’s refusal to sue states and localities for their illegal sanctuary policies has meant that they have been able to ignore the law with impunity.