President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to “end” so-called sanctuary cities—jurisdictions that refuse to make their local police enforce immigration law.
“This has to end,” he told a crowd in Houston in September, after talking about San Francisco’s refusal to share information with federal immigration agents. “It will end if I become president, I promise you it will end.”
On his fifth day in office, he signed an executive order to strip such cities and counties of their federal funding.
The threats appear to be backfiring. Since Trump’s election in November, nearly a dozen cities and counties — from progressive California to deep-red Alabama — have voted to adopt sanctuary city policies. Several more cities and an entire state are considering the move. Some cities that have long held sanctuary status are taking Trump to court, while others are creating legal defense funds and taking other measures to protect undocumented residents.
“We are not going to work with [Trump]. We’re not going to make it easy on him.”
“When we saw that visitors to our community and our nation were under attack by this unjust position and order that the president has made, we wanted people to know that he does not speak for us,” said Jonathan Austin, the president of the Birmingham City Council, which voted unanimously this week to become a sanctuary city. “We need to be a city that’s welcoming and a sanctuary to everyone, regardless of who they are.”
Speaking from the other side of the country, City Council member Sal Tinajero in Santa Ana, California told ThinkProgress his city voted to declare itself a sanctuary as a direct response to Trump’s election.
“The impact it was having on our families, on the psyche of our kids going to school, they were afraid of what was going to happen,” he said. “We knew we had to take action before the president took his oath of office.”
So far, only one sanctuary jurisdiction out of the nation’s 400 or so, Miami-Dade County, has caved to Trump’s defunding threat. Residents took to the streets to protest the decision, and they plan to pressure the county commission to restore sanctuary status in the weeks ahead.
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A constellation of sanctuaries
Since Trump was elected in November, a wave of cities and counties from coast to coast have adopted the sanctuary policies Trump vowed to “end.” From Birmingham, Alabama and Travis County, Texas in the deep south to Urbana, Illinois and Cincinnati, Ohio in the Midwest to Olympia, Washington and Alameda, California on the West Coast, cities large and small, urban and rural have adopted the sanctuary city label. Many, including Boulder, Colorado and Santa Ana, cited Trump’s election as the motivating force for the decision.
“We were already acting as a sanctuary city with our policies, but we had not labeled ourselves a sanctuary city,” Tinajero explained. “So we wanted our communities to know that we are not going to work with [Trump]. We’re not going to make it easy on him.”
Since there is no firm legal definition of a sanctuary city, these local governments are implementing a range of practices. Some of the sanctuary resolutions have been merely symbolic and change no laws on the ground. Some ban police officers from checking the immigration status of people they stop or arrest. Some limit information-sharing and cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Tinajero described the delicate balance Santa Ana adopted. “Let’s say, for example, that you have a person who commits a traffic violation,” he said. “Our police officers will not call ICE and say, ‘We have someone here who is undocumented.’ We don’t want people to fear that they could get pulled over one day going to work and never come back. But if people are being sought out because they committed a violent crime, that’s different. We would cooperate.”
“We don’t want people to fear that they could get pulled over one day going to work and never come back.”
The reasons officials give for making their cities into sanctuaries are as diverse as the cities themselves. Some say it’s strictly a financial decision, as it’s expensive for local jails to hold undocumented people until they are picked up by ICE, and they are not always reimbursed for that cost. Other cities cite public safety, arguing that if police are seen as de-facto immigration agents, undocumented residents will be afraid to come forward and report crimes.
“Local police departments work hard to build and preserve trust with all of the communities they serve, including immigrant communities,” said J. Thomas Manger, the Police Chief of Montgomery County, Maryland. “Immigrants residing in our cities must be able to trust the police and all of city government. This is essential to reducing crime and helping victims.”
Trump’s executive order cited “aliens who engage in criminal conduct” as the rationale for cracking down on sanctuary cities, saying such people pose “a significant threat to national security and public safety.” Throughout his campaign, he highlighted a handful of murders committed by undocumented immigrants as he whipped up support for his plan.
Yet a recent analysis of federal data found that sanctuary counties have lower crime rates, poverty rates, and unemployment rates than counties that fully cooperate with ICE. Overall, immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
Other cities, including Birmingham, Alabama, presented their decision as a continuation of the struggle for civil rights.
“The city of Birmingham has always fought for justice and equality throughout our history,” Austin said. “As a beacon of the civil rights movement and an example of what people can do when they join together to combat unjust laws and policies, we have shown how to make that a reality.”
In 2011, Alabama passed the harshest immigration law in the nation, requiring schools and local police officers to check the status of suspected undocumented immigrants and hand them over to federal officials. HB56 also made it a crime to rent a house to an undocumented immigrant or even give such a person a ride. It allowed utilities companies to shut off water and electricity to people who couldn’t prove their citizenship.
Tens of thousands of Latino workers fled the state, crippling several local industries and costing Alabama nearly $11 billion in tax revenue. Lawsuits from the Justice Department and civil rights groups forced the state to roll back some of the harshest provisions, and the state had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to residents whose rights were violated.
“We rely, as we have from the very beginning of this country, on immigrant labor.”
“There were children leaving our school system by the dozens. It impacted our agriculture and businesses across the state of Alabama,” said Austin. “So we know what happens when unjust laws are put in place. And we see it again with what the president is doing now.”
Austin noted that Birmingham’s new sanctuary city policies, which will be developed over the next few weeks and presented to the city council, should take the fallout from HB56 into account.
“We rely, as we have from the very beginning of this country, on immigrant labor,” he said. “Not just out in the factories and fields and warehouses, but also for ideas and innovations. We need people from all walks of life working together to solve problems. So to single out a particular group of people and say, ‘We don’t want you,’ that puts a damper on our own economy.”
Federal and state-level threats loom
This week, San Francisco became the first sanctuary city to sue Donald Trump over his executive order that could strip away more than a billion dollars of its federal funding. “This strikes at the heart of established principles of federalism and violates the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit reads. “The executive order is a severe invasion of San Francisco’s sovereignty.”
“There is something in our Constitution called states rights,” Tinajero said. “The federal government cannot coerce a state or municipality to do work that is their job, and immigration is a responsibility of the federal government. If we refuse to do it for you, you cannot then take away our funds.”
If Trump moves forward with his threat to cut off federal dollars, the types of funding most at risk are grants the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security give to states and cities to hire police officers, staff courtrooms, fund witness protection programs, provide drug treatment, and prevent domestic violence.
“That’s the irony,” said Tinajero. “The programs most affected are public safety and police officer programs. The National Police Officer Association supported Donald Trump, and yet he wants to take away funds and decrease their membership. That would result in a higher level of crime. I don’t know if the president wants crime to escalate under his watch because of his policies.”
At the same time, many Republican-controlled states are already moving aggressively on the same front — threatening to strip away state funds from sanctuary cities.
On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) became the first to act, canceling $1.5 million in criminal justice grants to Travis County — including funding for domestic violence prevention programs and a special court for veterans. The move follows an announcement by Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez that her department will no longer comply with ICE requests to hold inmates suspected of being undocumented, unless ICE presents a warrant or court order.
When Abbott made the same funding threat to Dallas County in 2015, the county sheriff backed down and agreed to honor all ICE detainers. But Hernandez says she will fight back. “I will not allow fear and misinformation to be my guiding principles as a leader sworn to protect this community,” she said. Abbott has also threatened to pass legislation that would allow him to remove from office Hernandez and other officials who back sanctuary policies. All 20 Republican state senators have agreed to support such a measure.
Pennsylvania Republicans introduced a bill this month to ban cities from adopting sanctuary policies, and said those that do so will lose their state grant funding. A nearly identical bill is moving forward in Idaho and Wisconsin.
Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), a rumored candidate for the Senate in 2018, has said he will do all he can to stop Cincinnati from becoming a sanctuary city. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) said he “will not support” Birmingham or any other city in the state becoming a sanctuary for immigrants, but has not yet said what he will do in response.