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What Are 'Sanctuary Cities' and Can the Trump Administration Stop Them?

During his Presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump promised to take away billions in federal dollars from jurisdictions that challenge his deportation plans by becoming “sanctuary cities.”

"Block funding for sanctuary cities... no more funding. We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths," Trump said in September during a major immigration speech in Phoenix. "Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars, and we will work with Congress to pass legislation to protect those jurisdictions that do assist federal authorities."

To some, it sounds simple enough: cities that “protect” unauthorized immigrants are doing something wrong, and they deserve punishment.

Jessica Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank known for its immigration-restrictionist ideology, says that cities that “obstruct enforcement remain a significant public safety problem throughout the country.”

However, the leaders of many local jurisdictions argue that they are considering their public safety priorities when making the decision not to collaborate with immigration authorities beyond what the law mandates.

“Our policy is we are not immigration agents. We are in the crime business”, said Riverside Police Chief Sergio Díaz right after the November election.

This attitude is not new. The City of Los Angeles, for example, started enforcing “special order 40” in 1979 under police Chief Daryl Gates, not exactly a liberal, prohibiting officers from initiating any action against a person with the sole intention of discovering their immigration status.

ICE Out of LA March
ICE Out of L.A. March. | Photo: SEIU Local 99/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Many law enforcement leaders maintain that actively collaborating with immigration authorities diminishes the trust of the community in the police and makes their job harder. 

Others indicate that jurisdictions are vulnerable to lawsuits if they hold immigrants in jails while waiting for immigration authorities to pick them up — the so-called ICE “detainers” — after several federal courts found this practice potentially violates constitutional rights.

So far, several courts have indicated that the enforcement of immigration laws is a matter for the federal government and that any collaboration by local governments is voluntary and subjected to specific agreements.

Still, under the federal legislation, personal data of all convicted criminals in local jails or prisons continues to go to the federal government, which decides whether someone is deportable or if ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is required to arrest them and process them for deportation.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“These cities and law enforcement leaders who limit collaboration with the feds are upholding the law and the Constitution,” argues Avideh Moussavian, policy attorney for the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), a pro-immigrant legal group.

Opponents of “sanctuary” policies are painting them as “harboring” criminals and undocumented immigrants, added Moussavian.

“That is completely false. Even cities that call themselves sanctuaries can't stop the application of immigration laws. It's not that they aren't allowing ICE to do its job, what they are saying is, we aren't doing your job for you.” 

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What is a “sanctuary city” exactly?

There's no single definition of what a “sanctuary city” is. In some locations, it means that city officials and law enforcement refrain from asking about resident´s immigration status. In others, it entails not holding detained immigrants in jails at the request of ICE on the so-called “detainers.”

In most of the cities that have recently passed ordinances or resolutions becoming “sanctuary cities” — a handful use the actual name, like Santa Ana, California — the decision doesn´t mean they are creating any new policies or keeping ICE authorities out of their neighborhoods.

Instead, the most obvious new action that has been proposed by cities to date involves devoting an amount of government funds to assist immigrants with legal representation in a deportation case. Cities with a lot of immigrants, like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, have started such legal funds. 

“A fair system of justice should provide immigrants who confront deportation — including children and families striving to realize their hopes and dreams — with lawyers to protect their rights,” said Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer when the announcement was made back in December to create a $10 million fund.

ICE Out of LA March
ICE Out of LA March. | Photo: SEIU Local 99/Flickr/Creative Commons License

That is very different from the origins of the so-called “sanctuary movement.” The name “sanctuary” invokes the idea of protecting the undocumented immigrants from arrest and deportation because it comes from a movement by churches and faith communities that was active in the United States during the 1980s, to protect immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala from deportation.

“The sanctuary movement comes from religious tradition, where churches and religious people helped prevent the deportation of certain immigrants or asylum seekers,” explained David Cook-Martin, professor of sociology and immigration expert at Grinnell College. 

The idea that the vulnerable stranger must be protected comes from religious tradition and the interpretation of certain Bible teachings. Right now, communities of faith are again rising to the task, given President-elect Trump´s promise to deport millions, and hundreds of congregations have signed up to offer sanctuary to immigrants.

Some churches are helping by housing individual immigrants and helping them fight deportation while others are providing resources to immigrant families, or plan to hold informational sessions. Their efforts are separate from cities, counties or states.

Pastor Melvin Valiente, from the First Baptist Church of Maywood, California, says that even for churches, protecting individual immigrants is “an extreme solution.”

“There´s a list of churches that have signed up,” says Valiente. “It involves advocating for immigrants, offering informational forums, assisting immigrants in filling up forms, train leadership and help an immigrant in need to secure legal help. In extreme cases, we may have to become more and more involved in physically protecting immigrants.”

San Francisco is my sanctuary!
San Francisco is my sanctuary! | Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Can the federal government punish “sanctuary cities”?

It is not yet clear how far the Trump Administration would want to go to compel states, counties, and municipalities to collaborate with federal authorities in enforcing immigration law, but several lawmakers in Congress have already introduced bills that threaten to cut funding in some cases.

House Republicans have drafted at least two bills that would strip federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities and college campuses.

Right after the installation of the new Congress on January 3rd, Pennsylvania Congressman Rob Barletta introduced the “Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Act,” which would stop federal funds from flowing to states or localities which “resist or ban enforcement of federal immigration laws.”

Maryland Republican Andy Harris also introduced a bill that would deny federal dollars to any entity that refuses to comply with ICE.

Paul Ryan meets with Donald Trump and Mike Pence on Capitol Hill after their election
Paul Ryan meets with Donald Trump and Mike Pence on Capitol Hill after their election. | Photo: Caleb Smith/Wikimedia Commons

This type of punitive actions by the federal government would set a legal and political battle between cities and the Trump administration, and initiate legal fights on the question of how far Congress and the Executive branch can go in securing state compliance with federal objectives.

Conservative analysts such as The Washington Post´s Jennifer Rubin have already quoted Chief Justice John Roberts in the case that challenged the implementation of Obamacare stating that there are limits to the power of Congress when it comes to using its spending power to pressure states to act in agreement with federal policies.

“Surely, threatening to take away all federal support for a city that doesn´t send cops out on the streets looking for suspected illegal immigrants to round up for ICE would be unconstitutional,” she writes.

Some states, like California, are preparing for that legal battle by hiring legal heavy hitters like former Attorney General Eric Holder to advise them on how to respond to the new administration and its attempts to compel states and localities to do its bidding on health, immigration, or other issues.
 

Top image: South Florida students gather to protest Donald Trump. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America/Getty Images

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