Trump’s Sanctuary Cities Crackdown Falls Short Of Campaign Promise

The president's executive order threatens to strip some money from cities with lenient policies on illegal immigration, but is unlikely to end the practice

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jan 25, 2017 at 4:55 PM ET

President Donald Trump took a tiny first step to cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities in an executive order on Wednesday. The measure could lead to some federal funding cuts for local governments that are lenient toward undocumented immigrants — but, practically speaking, falls far short of the president’s promise to stop them completely.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly declared that he would put an end to immigrant sanctuaries, whose police forces refuse to work with federal agents to arrest and detain immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, going so far as to suggest that these cities and counties — which number in the hundreds — would lose all federal funding. The Republican’s lofty rhetoric collided with reality in an action that’s much more modest in scope.

The executive order, which the president signed during a flurry of immigration activity by the White House, directs new Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and the incoming attorney general, who is likely to be Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, to begin looking at federal grant money that their departments might withhold from sanctuary cities. The move aims to pressure police in these jurisdictions — which include major cities New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles — to work more closely with immigration officials on deportations. It remains unclear just how much money these cities stand to lose, or whether the order by the Trump administration could survive a legal challenge.

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Still, the White House appeared bullish on their prospects. “Federal agencies are going to unapologetically enforce the law — no ifs, ands, or buts,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters.

But even with a boost in the number of deportation agents, which Trump also ordered on Wednesday, fulfilling the president’s pledge to banish up to three million people from America’s borders will remain a daunting task. The reason? Federal immigration enforcement continues to rely heavily on the aid of state and local law enforcement officials. “Mr. Trump’s plan will be undermined without the cooperation of these jurisdictions,” Muzaffar Chishti, director the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law, told Vocativ in a recent interview.

Dozens of liberal-leaning cities and counties have vowed they will refuse to aid federal law enforcement dispatched to deport them. Twelve of the largest American cities that consider themselves immigrant sanctuaries are home to 2.2 million, or roughly 20 percent, of all undocumented immigrants in the U.S., a Vocativ analysis found. And they don’t appear willing to back down.

“We’ve said time and again: if you start tearing families apart, you start leaving children here, taking their parents away, taking breadwinners of families away, this is going to be very destructive to this city, and it’s also immoral,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose city is home to more than 575,000 undocumented immigrants. “We’re going to do all that we can with the powers of New York City to protect them, and to get them support.”

City officials in Chicago, San Francisco,and other self-declared sanctuaries across the U.S. struck similarly defiant tones. “We will not be complicit in the deportation of our neighbors,” said Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, Oregon. “The city of Portland will remain a welcoming, safe place for all people regardless of immigration status.”

Trump’s downsized plan to withhold federal grant money from immigrant sanctuaries could also face an array of legal challenges, experts say. Seth Davis, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, told Vocativ that any attempt by the White House to could run afoul of the Constitution’s 10th Amendment. The Supreme Court, Davis said, has repeatedly interpreted it to prevent the federal government from “commandeering” local governments to enforce federal mandates, often with the support of conservative justices.

“Essentially, any funding streams they would try to use as levers to coerce cities to function as deportation agents or otherwise to assist the federal government in implementing their deportation policies would be subject to a constitutional challenge,” Davis said. 

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While there’s no exact definition, immigrant sanctuaries generally refer to jurisdictions that do not cooperate fully with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some cities, counties, and even college campuses do so by prohibiting local law enforcement from asking about a person’s immigration status. Others refuse to detain undocumented immigrants for minor offenses or honor all deportation requests made by the federal government.

Nearly all, however, work with federal officials to turn over illegal immigrants accused of violent crimes, contrary to frequent claims waged by critics. For example, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office in Texas — whose jurisdiction includes Austin —said last last week that it would scale back cooperation with federal immigration officials over deportations beginning February 1. But Sheriff Sally Hernandez said she will still honor all deportation requests for suspects that her office books on charges of capital murder, aggravated sexual assault, or human trafficking.

An analysis by the Migration Policy Institute last year found that at least 5.9 million undocumented immigrants — roughly 53 percent of the 11 million believed to be in the U.S. — lived in one of 360 jurisdictions that have passed laws to formally limit their cooperation with the ICE. Law enforcement in many cities and towns have expressed concern about working closely with federal immigration officials. Some fear it undermines trust with the immigrant community. Police say it can also make people less likely to report crimes or testify as witnesses.

Still, there is plenty the administration can do inside Chicago and other places that continue to shield undocumented immigrants. State and local jurisdictions are not immune from action from the federal government. Immigration officials can still conduct raids, set up check points, and carry out other aggressive tactics aimed at detaining immigrants. And Trump officials have reportedly begun to devise ways in which to widen the deportation net, including targeting immigrants accused of low-level misdemeanors and expanding a program known as “expedited removal,” which can bypass immigration courts.