What is a Sanctuary City?

There is no single or legal definition of a sanctuary city. In the United States, a sanctuary city is a municipality that chooses not to help with federal investigations of undocumented immigrants. Whether through formal policies like bylaws and ordinances, or through informal practices like declining federal requests to detain undocumented immigrants, sanctuary cities do not use their human and financial resources towards helping federal immigration enforcement. Immigration laws still apply in these jurisdictions, but the federal government will need to use their own information and agents, not the city’s. Some Canadian cities have passed resolutions that they will not require immigration status to be disclosed in return for receiving city services. There are purportedly 400 jurisdictions in the United States with sanctuary policies, compared with four in Canada (Hamilton, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver).

Since the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016, several cities have affirmed their sanctuary city policies. The Los Angeles Police Department stood firm that they would not stop individuals to request their immigration status. In San Francisco, Mayor Edwin Lee stated that the city would expand its own municipal fund to provide legal services to their local immigrant community. The City of Chicago has already set up a fund to help immigrants and their immigration processes. The rationale and goal for the constellation of formal and informal policies is to protect undocumented immigrants from detainment and/or deportation, irrespective of how they interact with local law enforcement.

However, opposition to sanctuary cities and their protection of undocumented immigrants exists across many parts of Canada and the United States. Many critics, President Trump included, cite criminal cases that have been perpetuated or allegedly perpetuated by undocumented immigrants. The most recent and hotly debated case is of the 2015 fatal shooting of Kate Steinle who was shot by an undocumented immigrant recently released from jail where her parents sued San Francisco for their lax sanctuary city policies.

What does President Trump’s Executive Order mean for Sanctuary Cities?

President Trump’s executive order applies to the future federal granting of funds for sanctuary cities. There are likely to be many legal challenges to President Trump’s executive order and decrease in federal funding, including the one already initiated by the City of San Francisco.

washpo_cameron_2017_jurisdiction-grants
Source: Washington Post.

Americans courts have upheld in their past jurisprudence that the federal government can only remove funding that is related to the specific policy involved. Additionally, courts have ruled that there cannot be funding decisions made in order to coerce states into particular actions or inactions. The late Justice Antonin Scalia cited a defense for sanctuary cities in Printz v US: “The Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program.” South Dakota v. Dole upheld past case law that federal grant restrictions may not pass if they are unrelated to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs,” and must also be to promote “general welfare.”

While there is no possibility of a complete halt of federal funding to cities, a reduction could pressure certain sanctuary cities to abandon their policies, for example Miami-Dade. Besides the congressionally provided funding, there are many grants that are administered via federal agencies that could mean significant funding losses for cities and states who do not comply.