The Impact Of State And Federal Laws On Immigration

In our previous blog post, we discussed that at the heart of the ambiguity surrounding the definition of sanctuary cities was the debate over the appropriate role for federal and state governments. This can have a serious impact on immigration law and underscore the need to speak with an immigration lawyer. The U.S. is a government structured in such a way to allow for, or even to maximize, state and local autonomy. The logic here is that local governments are meant to be able to democratically decide on the laws that will apply to their local communities. This breaks down in the following way:

Federal Law > State Law > Local Laws.

For more information on the differences between federal, state, and local laws, it can be helpful to speak to an immigration lawyer. Reach out to the Law Offices of Diron Rutty to speak with an immigration lawyer today. For now, let’s take a quick look at the role that each of the levels of law play in the U.S.

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Federal laws are those that apply to the country as a whole. Sometimes, the state and local laws might conflict with federal law, leading to debate as to the appropriate role of government and law enforcement. So-called sanctuary cities are an example where local laws are in conflict with federal laws. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, federal laws are generally thought to take precedent over state laws. In addition to immigration law, some other examples of federal law include the following:

  • Social Security laws
  • Bankruptcy laws
  • Civil Rights laws
  • Copyright and Patent laws
  • Laws against counterfeiting money and tax fraud


When a law is democratically decided on a state level, these are considered state laws. There are 50 states and a handful of commonwealths that make up the U.S. Each has its own jurisdiction and ability to pass laws and policies. Some examples of state laws include the following:

  • General criminal matters
  • Family and divorce laws
  • Medicaid and welfare systems
  • Contracts for businesses
  • Real estate laws
  • Worker compensation laws


Within the states themselves there are cities, counties, townships, etc. that can pass and enact certain laws and regulations. These are considered a subcategory of state laws. Local laws can include the following:

  • Zoning laws
  • Rent laws
  • Local safety laws


Now that we have a broad overview of differing levels of law in the U.S., it’s important to ask what happens when there are conflicting laws, as in the case of sanctuary cities. For immigration purposes, you might wonder if moving to a sanctuary city as an unauthorized immigrant will prevent the federal government from taking action against you and whether it is appropriate to reach out to an immigration lawyer.

Unfortunately, there are no clear answers to such questions. There are a wide variety of differing views from politicians and policy-makers regarding the appropriate role of the federal government and when — and to what extent — it is justified for the federal government to intervene over state and local laws.

In certain cases, the federal government takes a more hands-off approach to interfering on a state level, which tends to be the case with the aforementioned laws (e.g. general criminal matters and real estate laws). Sometimes, however, the federal government is more likely to interfere when laws differ.

The recent rise in state laws allowing for recreational cannabis, for instance, have demonstrated a variety of approaches on behalf of the federal government. The first few states to legalize or decriminalize medical cannabis were often faced with federal raids and regulations. However, as more and more states have passed laws decriminalizing cannabis, the level of federal interference has waned. This could be indicative of the federal government’s adherence to the voice of the people.


In the case of immigration law, however, the voices of the people tend not to be as univocal. This has fueled much of the debate as to what the federal government should do in regard to unauthorized immigrants in sanctuary cities and states. Is it the role of the federal government to disregard the decisions of the cities and states that want to take a more open approach to immigration? It is unclear as to how this will play out going forward, and determining the appropriate role for federal, state, and local governments will continue to be debated for a long time to come.

The differing laws and levels of laws in the U.S. can be confusing and overwhelming. Staying informed on your local and federal laws can help protect your rights and make navigating the process of immigration much easier and safer. Contact the Law Offices of Diron Rutty to speak with an immigration lawyer and learn more about state and local laws in New York City.

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