UPDATE: As of May 2017, Congress chose not to pass legislation that would have allowed Trump to defund sanctuary cities.
This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to take back $4 billion in federal aid to sanctuary cities, including New York City, Syracuse, Ithaca, and Rochester. Those cities have said they will not help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enforce federal immigration laws.
What’s the big deal?
Over 5 million immigrants were deported under Obama but his administration focused on criminals and people caught crossing the border. While campaigning, President Donald Trump criticized this focus and promised to create a “deportation force” to remove undocumented immigrants. In February, he issued rules to make it easier for ICE to deport immigrants (both documented and undocumented), including people who hadn’t committed a serious crime. This even included people who had filed for DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, under Obama. Also called Dreamers, these are people who were born abroad but arrived in the US as children and grew up here. Trump’s so-called “Muslim bans” on travelers from several majority-Muslim Middle Eastern countries have also fueled this alarm, though court orders have stopped those for the moment.
In response to this stepped-up immigration enforcement, cities and even whole states have responded by saying that they would not assist ICE. In February, Ithaca declared itself to be a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. The New York State Assembly also passed a bill declaring New York to be a sanctuary, though the bill is unlikely to get a vote in the State Senate.
What does “sanctuary” mean in practice?
Sanctuary cities refuse to use police in immigration raids, won’t allow federal immigration authorities to access school and other records to find undocumented immigrants, and won’t hold immigrants in jail for ICE to pick them up. However, if someone is already in prison, they will generally turn them over to ICE. They also generally won’t ask immigrants if they are documented.
So what just happened?
On Monday, Attorney General Sessions announced that local and state governments will need to comply with federal law and turn over undocumented immigrants. Governments that don’t work with ICE would lose access to $4 billion in Justice Department grants. New York State received $218 million from those grants last year.
What’s the argument?
Sessions and other Republicans say that sanctuary policies make cities less safe. However, the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in America, says that if Sessions cuts funding from sanctuary cities, that will actually make cities less safe. Many law enforcement officers have advocated sanctuary policies to enable police to focus on stopping crime, rather than finding undocumented immigrants. The policies also encourage immigrant communities to cooperate to solve crime. A new study by University of California San Diego Professor Tom Wong agrees, finding that sanctuary counties actually experience lower crime.
Advocates of sanctuary cities see their work as protecting immigrants and their constitutional rights. With more than four million immigrants in New York State (three million in New York City), that’s an awful lot of people to protect. The sanctuary movement originally grew out of churches in the 1980’s citing a biblical imperative to shelter the persecuted.
How are sanctuary cities responding?
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren replied to Sessions’ announcement to say that Rochester follows all federal laws while still being a sanctuary city. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement that Trump does not have the authority to cut off this funding.
Coincidentally, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito hosted a summit this week for sanctuary cities. She insisted that the laws were legal and promised to be Trump’s “worst nightmare“. Lourdes Rosado, a representative for Schneiderman’s office, also declared “What’s we’re doing is legal, what they’re doing is not.”
What’s likely to happen?
If Trump and Sessions actually follow through with this, expect lawsuits. Advocates think they will win against the federal government, though it will almost certainly take years for a definitive outcome.
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