What are the “sanctuary” cities and why is Trump targeting them?

LOS ANGELES / WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US Republican President Donald Trump has stepped up his administration’s struggle in recent weeks against the democratically-led “sanctuary” jurisdictions that restrict cooperation with the federal application of immigration.

FILE PHOTO: inmates sit on their bunks in a housing unit during a multimedia tour at the Northwest ICE Processing Center, one of 31 dedicated ICE facilities hosting immigrant detainees, in Tacoma, Washington, USA, December 16, 2019. REUTERS / Lindsey Wasson / Photo file

The struggle to determine whether states and localities should participate in Trump’s immigration crackdown comes as the president faces re-election in November and has put the issue at the heart of his 2020 campaign.

Trump is now opening new fronts in the battle against cities, filing lawsuits and quoting quotes in what Attorney General William Barr has called part of a “significant escalation” in the fight against uncooperative jurisdictions.


The “sanctuary” movement dates back to the 1980s, when US churches sheltered Central American migrants who had fled civil conflict in the region and feared deportation.

The label is now generally applied to states and localities that have laws, policies or regulations that make it more difficult for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track down and arrest immigrants they deem deportable. However, there is no official definition of a “sanctuary” and levels of cooperation vary from place to place.

One of the highest-profile “sanctuary” policies is opposition to the prolonged detention of suspected violators of the immigration law in state or local custody.

The ICE may request that such suspects be held for up to 48 hours beyond their release time, which allows ICE officers to hold the person in custody. Such requests are known as “inmates”.

Ten states have taken measures that limit compliance with requests for detainees, deny ICE access to prisons or limit communication with ICE, according to a list compiled by the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that supports lower levels of immigration. More than 150 counties and cities have their “sanctuary” measures, according to the group.

Some officials from non-cooperative jurisdictions claim that requests are voluntary and honoring them could mean holding people back for no constitutionally valid reason.


Federal immigration officers still operate in “shrine” jurisdictions, but with less assistance from local law enforcement.

Non-cooperative jurisdictions send fingerprints of anyone who has been booked in prison or in prison to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which sends them to ICE for an immigration status check, according to an ICE spokesperson.

The ICE says that not knowing the release date of a suspected immigration violator can make it more difficult to arrest and deport that person and endanger officers. The agency also claims that it should be allowed to enter prisons to collect suspects in a safe environment.

Some states and locations generally reject ICE detention requests, but honor them in cases where the person has been charged or convicted of a serious crime. Other jurisdictions will not honor detainees under any circumstances, the ICE spokesman said.


Some police chiefs fear that if viewed as an arm of federal immigration enforcement, immigrants living illegally in the country may be less likely to come forward as victims or witnesses of crime.

For others, there are concerns about the stress of local resources or their legal liability, as some courts have ruled for prolonged detention due to ICE requests.

While Trump and his senior officials often highlight cases of violence committed by immigrants, studies have shown that immigrants do not commit crimes at a higher rate than Native Americans.

A 2016 analysis conducted by a sociology professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo examined the relationship between immigration and crime in U.S. metropolitan areas. The researchers found “clear and global” evidence that increased immigration did not lead to higher crime levels.


Trump criticized the “sanctuaries” during his 2016 campaign and gave speeches flanked by relatives of people killed by suspected immigration law violators, referred to by supporters as “families of angels”.

The president revisited that message for his reelection offer. One of Trump’s guests at his State of the Union speech on February 4 was Jody Jones, whose brother was killed by a twice deported immigrant who had not been transferred to ICE after being arrested for the sixth time in 2018, according to the White House.

The Trump administration has tried to forcefully arm the jurisdictions into “compliance”, but has had little success.

Shortly after taking office in 2017, Trump issued an executive order that sought to retain funds from the sanctuary cities, but those efforts were largely frozen by the courts.

Last year, Trump proposed sending “an unlimited supply” of immigrants who are fighting deportation to the sanctuary cities, but the idea never materialized.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said earlier this month that members of a highly qualified tactical unit would be deployed to increase the arrests of unauthorized immigrants in San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, New Orleans, Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, a move that has outraged Democrats and immigrant supporters.

Reporting by Kristina Cooke and Ted Hesson; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Alistair Bell

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