'Sanctuary Cities,' Refuges for Immigrants, Risk Losing Federal Funds


Protesters rally for immigration reform in 2010 in San Francisco, the first sanctuary city to file a lawsuit against President Trump for his recent executive order on immigration enforcement. Justin Sullivan/Getty Image
Protesters rally for immigration reform in 2010 in San Francisco, the first sanctuary city to file a lawsuit against President Trump for his recent executive order on immigration enforcement. Justin Sullivan/Getty Image

An estimated $2.27 billion in federal funds are at risk for the top 10 largest county and city governments in the U.S., with New York City topping the list at $701.6 million, followed by Chicago/Cook County and Los Angeles. Why? Because they're "sanctuary cities," or jurisdictions where policies limit law enforcement's involvement in federal immigration matters. After President Trump's executive order "to deploy all lawful means to secure the nation's southern border" and his remarks to cut sanctuary cities' federal funding, their autonomy is in question.

People who oppose the policies adopted by sanctuary cities say they prevent federal agents from deporting undocumented immigrants,threatening national security. But many supporters of sanctuary cities insist their policies aren't unlawful. In fact, San Francisco is the first sanctuary city to file a lawsuit against the president for his executive order, calling it a violation of the 10th Amendment, which affirms state sovereignty. But what exactly is a "sanctuary city"?

Many churches in the U.S. started a sanctuary movement in the 1980s as a refuge for unauthorized immigrants. That's nothing new — churches have long acted as havens for criminals, even in ancient times. But now, upwards of 200 jurisdictions around the country are assisting immigrants in "sanctuary cities," where local governments create policies that protect and defend immigrants' rights. For instance, cities can prohibit the use of local resources to help immigration enforcement, and they can tell their agencies and law enforcement to accept foreign forms of identification. (Immigrants often can't get drivers' licenses.)

According to a Pew Research Center study, 66 percent of unauthorized immigrants have been living in the U.S. for at least 10 years. In 2014, 59 percent of unauthorized immigrants resided in six states: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas. And of the 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. that year, 8 million were working or looking for a job.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) recently published a report that lists a range of immigrant sanctuary policies. It notes that the greatest policy influencers are county sheriffs and jails, where the civil immigration and criminal legal systems are butting heads with increasing frequency. The report details a seven-point rubric describing the most common types of policies and local assistance in civil immigration enforcement across the country, focusing on how they involve U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Lena Graber, special projects attorney for the ILRC, says in an email, "Sanctuary policies can exist at many levels — city, county, school district, state, hospital, or other local agencies. These are generally policies that eschew participation in immigration enforcement, and at their core are about ensuring that cities and counties afford equal and fair treatment to all of their residents, no matter where they were born."

Several bills that may affect sanctuary cities — including the Stop Sanctuary Cities Act, Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Act, Stop Dangerous Cities Act and No Funding for Sanctuary Campuses Act — also have been introduced in Congress. Even the federal government's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), enacted under President Obama's administration, may be in question because of the executive order. Recent data out of the Pew Research Center shows that the unauthorized immigrant youth who have received work permits and relief for deportation through DACA total more than 750,000. If they lost deferred action, they would no longer be able to work legally in the U.S., and may face deportation.

"Contrary to many assumptions," says Graber, "sanctuary policies are not necessarily in defiance of any state or federal law, but are entirely consistent with the powers of local authorities to direct their own use of resources." ILRC's report also explains what it calls a "spectrum of sanctuary," three phases of inclusion for immigrants: "stay & be safe," "survive & thrive" and "belong." But a new game plan may be necessary soon.