No Sanctuary for US Sanctuary Cities

 /  March 13, 2017, 10:14 a.m.


In the aftermath of executive orders cracking down on immigrants, it seems that sanctuary cities stand as beacons of hope. Declarations of defiance and threats of legal action against the Trump administration may hearten immigrants and immigrant rights activists, but the question remains how much concrete action these cities can take before they suffer consequences from the federal government. The prospect of being cut off from federal funds has already caused major immigrant hubs like Miami to reverse sanctuary city policies. However, if the majority of federal funding cuts would be targeted at their criminal justice systems, most sanctuary cities should not be deterred from upholding their policies in the face of funding cuts.

‘Sanctuary cities’ themselves are broadly and vaguely defined. At the bare minimum, a sanctuary city ‘prioritizes enforcing local criminal law over using its resources to enforce federal immigration law.’ Under this broad definition, around three hundred municipalities in the US can be considered sanctuary cities, although creating a comprehensive count can be challenging. The attitude can be manifested in several forms: a police officer may choose not to inquire about immigration status when arresting a drunk driver, a department may choose not cooperate with federal forces attempting a raid, or a jail could decide not to hold a detainee long enough for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to gather the paperwork to legally deport him or her. In fact, the main form of resistance has come through this last method; afraid of being sued, local jails in sanctuary cities usually do not hold on to undocumented immigrants.

On the other end of the spectrum lie cities like San Francisco that proudly and boldly claim to offer a ‘full package of healthcare, schooling, and police noncooperation with border patrol sweeps.’ It is estimated that such a full package costs every legal resident of such a city around $450 per year. Although these cities offer the most protection to their undocumented residents, they therefore also place the highest monetary burden on their legal residents. The number of sanctuary cities that fall into this subcategory is understandably a small percentage of all cities that fall under ‘sanctuary cities’ as a whole. Legal experts generally agree that Trump’s budget cuts could only extend to criminal justice systems in these cities. Of the $27 billion in federal funding given to sanctuary cities, only $546 million was transferred from the Department of Justice to local police departments. In fact, federal funding only makes up a small amount of police department budgets for most of these cities—meaning that there would not be a debilitating effect as most city councils and mayors fear. However, it must be noted that putting these cities into context allows for the understanding that, despite their umbrella terminology, the effect of federal funding cuts would still vary widely among municipalities. For example, considering that Philadelphia spends less on each legal resident than DC does, the effect of defunding is likely to be felt more heavily in DC than Philadelphia. Nonetheless, considering that the majority of their funding will not be pulled, and what will be pulled generally makes up only a small portion of their budget anyway, sanctuary cities can rest easy when weighing the monetary risks of defying the Trump administration.

What should concern these cities, however, is how acts of defiance will play out in their streets if the federal government and state governments decide to take matters into their own hands. When she implemented a more immigrant-friendly policing policy in Austin, Sheriff Sally Hernandez faced immediate pushback from the Texas government. Governor Greg Abbott immediately cut $1 million in funding from her department, in addition to instituting legislation that forced her to transfer suspected undocumented immigrants into ICE hands. In addition, legislation passed in the Bush and Obama eras, particularly the Secure Communities Act, ensures that information on any and all bookings by local policemen is automatically shared with federal authorities, including ICE. If Trump really does choose to employ federal reserve forces to implement his crackdown on undocumented immigrants, they will have all the information they need at their fingertips—no local or state-level cooperation required.

Sanctuary cities represent a more liberal strain of thinking about immigration policy than the political mainstream. Still, concerns about the consequences of standing up to Trump’s policies are misguided because a minor blow to the budget of their criminal justice systems will not affect most of these cities heavily. However, if sanctuary cities really want to remain sanctuaries, they need to refocus efforts away from concerns about making up lost funds and toward asserting informational and financial independence from state and federal agencies.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Maheema Haque


<script type="text/javascript" src="//" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>