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San Francisco passed a sanctuary ordinance in 1989 that barred city employees, include police, from asking about immigration status or cooperating with immigration investigations and arrests unless required by warrants. In April, Mayor Gavin Newsom began an $83,000 public-awareness campaign aimed at promoting San Francisco’s sanctuary-city status.

Mr. Kobach said sanctuary policies fall into two categories: “don’t ask” and “don’t tell.” A “don’t ask” ordinance prohibits city workers from inquiring about an individual’s immigration status. A “don’t tell” policy prevents them from reporting a suspected illegal immigrant to immigration authorities.

The San Francisco ordinance falls under the more extreme “don’t tell” category, he said. In Denver, the case may be tougher to prove because city officials have repeatedly denied the presence of sanctuary status.

“Denver is not - and has never been - a so-called sanctuary city,” said Sue Cobb, a spokeswoman for Mayor John Hickenlooper.

In 2006, the Colorado legislature passed a law prohibiting jurisdictions from enacting sanctuary policies. Those that do would become ineligible for state grants.

Critics argue that two executive orders approved in Denver give the city de facto sanctuary status. The first, Executive Order 116, approved in 1998, forbids discrimination against legal foreign nationals in the delivery of services.

The second, Executive Order 119, issued in 2002, allows Denver agencies to accept consular identification cards for identification purposes. In 2003, however, the legislature approved a law restricting the use of such cards, and “Denver accepts identification consistent with state law,” according to the mayor’s office.

Denver came under fire in 2005 after it was learned that Raul Gomez-Garcia, convicted of murdering a police officer, had never had his immigration status questioned even after being issued traffic tickets. Gomez-Garcia, a Mexican national, was in the country illegally and did not have a valid driver’s license.

“It doesn’t have to be a written policy. Federal law also prohibits informal policies,” said Mr. Kobach. “They [attorneys] can establish a pattern and practice.”