What Is a 'Sanctuary City'?
Trump's threat to cut off federal funding for sanctuary cities could cost their taxpayers millions
By Suzanne Ciechalski
Donald Trump kickstarted his presidential campaign by asserting that Mexico is sending "people that have lots of problems" to the United States.
"They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," he said in June 2015. Then, he promised to build a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico — igniting a contentious debate on illegal immigration.
Since taking office, Trump has moved to crack down on illegal immigration, in part by targeting so-called "sanctuary cities" that do not comply with immigration laws that could lead to undocumented immigrants being deported.
When it comes to these sanctuary cities, misconceptions abound. Some assume that they harbor criminals, especially in the aftermath of the death of Kate Steinle, whom Trump often mentioned on the campaign trail.
Steinle was killed
in San Francisco, a sanctuary city, in 2015. Her alleged killer, Francisco Sanchez, was an undocumented immigrant with an extensive rap sheet.
Sanctuary cities aim to protect undocumented immigrants by refusing to work with the federal government to enforce immigration laws. In response, Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding to these cities with an executive order — a move that has led to plenty of backlash.
What are sanctuary cities, and why are they a big deal?
There's no specific legal definition for a sanctuary city, but broadly, the term refers to municipalities that don't let local law enforcement agents cooperate with federal immigration enforcement in an effort to shield its community of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
That can mean rules stopping police officers from asking about a person's immigration status or keeping jailors from giving immigration agents advance notice of an inmate's release from jail.
Sanctuary city advocates argue that the policy encourages undocumented immigrants to work with police forces they'd otherwise hide from, keeping the community safer, and that the immigrants contribute meaningfully to the community. Opponents say undocumented immigrants don't contribute their fair share of income taxes and can be a drain on health systems. Trump calls them a threat to national security and public safety.
Since Trump took office last month, many cities have reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining sanctuary status. Trump has threatened to deny these cities federal funding if they continue to offer refuge to undocumented immigrants. The money being threatened is categorized as discretionary grant programs, used for things like sewer and water grants, equipment for first responders and transportation. It can add up fast, though it's not clear the order is constitutional.
What cities are sanctuary cities?
, a website that touts itself as "the world’s largest private database of government spending," conducted a study on the funding of sanctuary cities using data from the 2016 fiscal year.
There are 106 American cities that are considered sanctuary cities, but close to 300 total government jurisdictions, including states, counties, cities and other municipalities, that claim to be sanctuaries, according to the study, "Federal Funding of America’s Sanctuary Cities." The total population living in sanctuary cities totals about 46 million people.
New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Austin, Newark, Denver, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Portland and Providence are some major sanctuary cities. One in five undocumented immigrants lives in these cities. And combined, these cities received $16 billion in federal funding in 2016, according to the study.
Mayors of some of those 12 major cities are standing by their sanctuary status.
"You are welcome in Chicago as you pursue the American dream," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said
following Trump’s executive action.
"We're going to defend all of our people, regardless of where they come from and regardless of their documentation status," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said
at a rally.
More than half a million New Yorkers are undocumented, NBC New York reported.
Other leaders, however, have been quicker to give up on sanctuary city protections.
Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez has directed jails to hold undocumented immigrants detained by police for hand-off to the Department of Homeland Security upon request, NBC Miami reported
. Trump praised the move, calling the mayor’s decision "strong."
How much funding do these cities get?
In 2016, $26.741 billion went to the 106 sanctuary cities in the U.S. through federal grants and direct payments, OpenTheBook.com’s study found. Of that money, $21.5 billion was paid in grants, while $4.23 billion was spent in direct payments.
The funding varies by city, from $5 per resident, as in Ashland, Oregon, into the thousands. New York City received more than $7 billion in federal funds last year, and with a population of 8,550,412, that equates to $894.07 in funding per resident.
Burlington, Vermont, on the other hand, receives $99,557,246.00 in federal funding. With its much smaller population of 42,452 people, that breaks down to $2,345.17 per resident.
Funding per resident in America's 11 other major sanctuary cities:
- Los Angeles: $126.51
- Chicago: $1,942.86
- Seattle: $414.38
- Austin: $222.66
- Newark: $733.27
- Denver: $332.48
- Philadelphia: $376.13
- Minneapolis: $287.06
- San Francisco: $588.87
- Portland: $274.69
- Providence: $1,311.09
How does Trump’s threat affect these cities?
In January, Trump signed an executive order that would prevent sanctuary cities from receiving federal funding, unless it applies to law enforcement, NBC News reported
. Grants to law enforcement amounted to $543.97 million in 2016, according to OpenTheBooks.com’s study.
The executive order’s policy
seeks to "Ensure that jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable Federal law do not receive Federal funds, except as mandated by law."
Following the signing of the order, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said
, "We're going to strip federal grant money from the sanctuary states and cities that harbor undocumented immigrants. The American people are no longer going to have to be forced to subsidize this disregard for our laws."
The Associated Press reported that there's legal precedent that says the federal government has to establish a concrete tie between the funding it may cut off and what it is demanding of the states—in other words, the punishment is supposed to fit the crime. If applied so narrowly, the ban on funding for sanctuary cities could be limited to a handful of smaller programs within the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
Those programs that could still be affected include grants for justice assistance, police hiring and funds for programs combating violence against women. Another program partially reimburses state and local governments for the costs of keeping unauthorized immigrants in jail.
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit immigration resource center, issued a statement
decrying Trump’s executive order.
"Local law enforcement knows best how to keep their neighborhoods safe, so let us allow them to do their jobs and don’t ask them to do yours, Mr. Trump," said Lena Graber, special projects attorney at the center. "Immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility, not a local one. Our Constitution does not have loopholes, and we will not turn a blind eye to any attempts to poke holes in its protections."
For the residents of some of these cities, the cost of defiance could be significant.
For a family of four residing in one of the 106 sanctuary cities, the cost of lost funding would be $1,810, or $454 per person, according to OpenTheBooks.com’s study.
"Mayors defending their sanctuary city status by refusing to comply with federal law are essentially imposing a defiance tax on local residents," said Adam Andrzejewski, CEO of OpenTheBooks.com. "On average, this tax amounts to $500 per man, woman and child. Major cities like Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago have the most to lose, and nearly $27 billion is at stake across the country."
Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Illinois, residents received the most federal funding on a per capita basis, according to OpenTheBooks.com’s study, meaning that they have the most to potentially lose by remaining sanctuary cities.
Is it legal to defund sanctuary cities?
The constitutionality of the executive order has been up for debate since Trump signed it. Most taxpayer money is beyond his control. But a relatively small portion of the federal budget involves grants distributed by agency and Cabinet department heads appointed by Trump, and those programs could be affected.
The administration hasn't given detailed guidance on how the order will be enforced, but legal challenges are certain once it is used against a city or state. For one thing, critics say the order ignores legal precedent that holds that the federal government can't force the employees of local jurisdictions to enforce federal laws. For instance, a 1997 Supreme Court decision, Printz v. United States, that held that the federal government can't force states to "enact or administer a federal regulatory program."
Some cities are filing federal lawsuits against the executive order.
Chelsea and Lawrence, two Massachusetts cities with large Latino populations, filed suit in federal court in Boston on Wednesday. The lawsuit says Trump's executive order to withdraw funding from communities that decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities "constitutes unconstitutional coercion" and is "a major affront to basic principles of federalism and the separation of powers."
San Francisco filed a similar lawsuit last week.