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How Battle Over ‘Sanctuary Cities’ Has Heated Up: QuickTake Q&A

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Donald Trump’s November victory owed little to the largest U.S. cities, which voted against him in force. So far into Trump’s presidency, there’s no sign of warming relations. The White House issued an executive order in January that threatens to block federal funding to jurisdictions that refuse to comply with U.S. immigration-enforcement efforts. On Monday, Chicago filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department over newly unveiled funding requirements that deny grant money to such “sanctuary cities,” joining other municipalities that have since taken the administration to court.

1. What’s a sanctuary city?

While there’s no official legal definition, the label generally applies to cities (or counties, or other jurisdictions) that declare they won’t assist in immigration enforcement and deportation efforts. The phrase has been used for decades by county and municipal governments that have policies offering some level of welcome to undocumented aliens. These policies were introduced in the 1980s in response to a movement of hundreds of U.S. churches and synagogues to provide safe haven for Central Americans fleeing civil conflicts. One of the first big cities to join was Los Angeles, where the city council in 1985 voted to oppose the deportation of law-abiding Central American refugees. Other early adopters were Berkeley, California; Cambridge and Brookline, Massachusetts; Madison, Wisconsin; and Takoma Park, Maryland.

2. Does it offer genuine sanctuary?

No. No jurisdiction is beyond the reach of federal immigration authorities. Policies in sanctuary cities, however, can make it less likely that an undocumented alien will come to the attention of federal officials or wind up in their hands. Many sanctuary cities refuse to honor "ICE detainers," or requests from the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold someone in custody for an additional 48 hours.

3. How many sanctuary cities are there?

There’s no definitive list. The San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which supports the sanctuary movement, says at least 635 U.S. counties -- more than one in five -- refuse to hold people in jail on federal detainer requests, while at least 53 counties, or about 2 percent of the total, prohibit using local resources to assist federal immigration enforcement. The Trump administration said 118 local governments refused to comply with detainer requests during the week of Jan. 28.

4. What is Trump’s objection?

He says sanctuary cities "are not safe" and "breed crime," though there’s little evidence of a correlation. Trump cites anecdotes such as the fatal shooting of a 32-year-old woman in San Francisco in July 2015, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record. (The accused, a Mexican national named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, is going on trial for murder.) Trump’s order cites a law, enacted in 1996 under President Bill Clinton, prohibiting local governments from telling employees not to share information with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

5. What is Trump doing about it?

His Jan. 25 executive order directs the withholding of federal grants, "except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes," from jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials. It doesn’t specify which sources of federal funding will be targeted, though the likely options include money distributed by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Trump also ordered that, every week, the government "make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens." In late July, the administration announced that recipients of Justice Department grant money aimed at supporting local law enforcement must give ICE agents access to local jails, provide at least 48 hours’ notice ahead of the release of undocumented inmates of interest, and eliminate restrictions on the sharing of local immigration status information with the federal government.

6. How much money could be at stake?

At the moment, guesses range from tens of millions to billions of dollars, depending on what funding sources Trump targets and whether courts permit him. Fitch Ratings says the cuts aren’t likely to be steep enough to affect the bond ratings of sanctuary cities, since federal grants mainly flow to specific programs -- like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and school-lunch subsidies -- rather than to general government operations. Fitch noted, "Much federal funding to the municipal level flows to states, counties and school districts rather than cities themselves." In 2016, the Justice Department handed out more than $263 million in funds under the program for which notifications on eligibility were announced in July.

7. Do sanctuary cities oppose federal immigration laws?

Not necessarily. Generally speaking, leaders of sanctuary cities just don’t want their local law enforcement personnel to be active participants in enforcing those federal statutes. Requiring local police to inquire into immigration status, or to detain a suspected undocumented immigrant who would otherwise be free to go, would spur racial profiling and discourage immigrants from reporting crimes or seeking needed services, according to this line of argument. It’s "not any local jurisdiction’s job nor legal obligation to carry out the federal government’s immigration enforcement work," as the ILRC puts it.

8. What do those cities do with undocumented immigrants?

The ILRC identifies seven different types of "sanctuary" policies. They include barring federal agents from secured areas of local jails without a warrant and prohibiting local officers from participating in joint patrols with federal agents. Adherence to the seven practices varies. Only two counties -- Cook in Illinois, which includes Chicago, and San Francisco County in California -- enforce all seven policies and thus offer the "most comprehensive protections" for undocumented immigrants, according to the ILRC.

9. How can they do this?

In a 1997 ruling, the Supreme Court held that the federal government can’t require state officials to enforce federal law, a doctrine known as the "anti-commandeering principle."

10. What’s been the response to Trump’s order?

San Francisco filed a lawsuit that got a federal judge to temporarily block Trump’s threatened cuts to funding. This week, Chicago sued Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his threat to withhold federal grant money. The mayors of New York and Boston, among other city leaders, spoke out in continued support of their sanctuary city protections. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said federal grant money must be "directly related to the program at issue" and cannot be "cut off in a coercive way." But Trump’s threat did have an impact in at least one place: The mayor of Miami-Dade County ordered the city’s jails to comply with federal requests going forward. At least 36 states and the District of Columbia have considered more than 100 bills this year regarding sanctuary jurisdictions or noncompliance with immigration detainers, according to a report from the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. Four states -- Georgia (related to higher education), Indiana, Mississippi and Texas -- enacted laws opposing sanctuary policies, the report shows.

The Reference Shelf

  • Trump’s executive order.
  • A QuickTake Q&A on Trump’s fast start using executive orders and memoranda.
  • A QuickTake explainer on refugees, political asylum and Trump.
  • "Searching for Sanctuary," a report by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
  • Texas is battling its own sanctuary cities.
  • Sanctuary cities are safe, thanks to conservatives, Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman writes.
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