Explainer: Sanctuary Cities Now and in the Trump Era

Meir Rinde | December 13, 2016 | Explainer, Immigration
Sanctuary cities limit their cooperation with immigration authorities. What are their prospects — in New Jersey and elsewhere — under a Trump administration?

During the presidential campaign Donald Trump harshly criticized so-called sanctuary cities that decline to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, blaming them for violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

As President-elect Trump prepares to enter the White House, officials in sanctuary municipalities in New Jersey and other states are wondering if the federal government will attempt to force them to cooperate more fully with immigration authorities, or punish them for their policies.

What are sanctuary cities? Definitions vary, but usually sanctuary cities have policies or laws directing local law enforcement not to question people solely about their immigration status, or not to honor U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests that they hold undocumented immigrants in custody beyond their release date so ICE can pick them up. Some cities will only hold immigrants who have a history of violent felonies or are charged with violent crimes, only honor a detainer request accompanied by a judge’s order, or refuse to assist immigration raids.

Why they exist: Officials in sanctuary cities and counties say they want to avoid making immigrants fear contact with police, as that would discourage them from reporting crimes, make it harder to conduct police investigations, and harm community relations. Some judges have also ruled that detaining someone on an ICE request rather than a warrant violates due process, which could make a city liable for wrongful imprisonment.

How to define sanctuary cities: There is no official definition or list of sanctuary cities, but organizations that advocate on immigration issues say about 300 places limit immigration enforcement and cooperation with ICE, including Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and several New Jersey cities and towns. Last month, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said his city intended to continue its practice of not honoring detainer requests unless they were accompanied by a judge’s order. “Newark already has a policy of protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation by U.S. immigration authorities,” Baraka said. “Despite the election of Donald Trump, we see no reason to change that policy.”

Others places that have been described as sanctuaries include Camden, Jersey City, North Bergen, Princeton, Trenton, Union City, West New York, and Middlesex and Union counties. Some places with large Latino immigrant populations, like Freehold and Hightstown boroughs, have been called sanctuary cities but local officials dispute the designation.

In 2007 the state attorney general issued a directive saying law enforcement officers must ask about immigration status when arresting someone for an indictable offense or for driving while intoxicated. Otherwise officers may not ask about immigration status.

The opposition: Critics say sanctuary policies encourage illegal immigration, undermine ICE enforcement, and conflict with federal law. They note that a 1996 federal statute says local governments may not bar officials from sending immigration status information to ICE, though it does not require that the officials provide the information.

In October a federal judge in Illinois ruled that ICE’s use of detainer requests without a warrant exceeds the agency’s legal authority. The decision affects several midwestern states.

Bills have been introduced in Congress that would keep sanctuary cities from receiving law enforcement-related federal grants but none have become law. In New Jersey, Assemblyman Ron Dancer (R-Monmouth) has repeatedly proposed legislation that would prohibit sanctuary city policies and require jails to hold illegal immigrants who have committed crimes until ICE can take them into custody. Local officials who don’t comply could be charged with ethics violations and even be jailed. The Assembly has not acted on the bill.

A campaign issue: Republicans who are critical of sanctuary cities have highlighted the death of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco last year. Steinle was allegedly shot by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record who had been released from a local jail despite an ICE detainer. Trump cited Steinle’s case frequently on the campaign trail and promised to strip cities like San Francisco of federal funding. “We will end the sanctuary cities that have caused so many needless deaths,” he said in an August speech. “No more funds!”

In a radio interview last month, Gov. Chris Christie said Trump has a “much different feeling” about giving federal funding to sanctuary cities. “And so everybody better get ready,” Christie said. “Get your big-boy pants on.”

Potential Trump effect: Trump has not specified what type of federal funds he would try to withhold from cities that do not cooperate fully with ICE. If all federal money were withheld, it would amount to up to a quarter of the budget in some affected cities and as little as 1 percent in others, according to one analysis.

Some reports say the Trump administration will target law enforcement funding or Department of Homeland Security grants. Trump’s nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), has called for the withholding of law enforcement dollars. One potential target is the Department of Justice’s COPS program, which gave $13.3 million in grants to nine New Jersey cities this year to hire officers, as well as other funding. The grants include $2.8 million for Paterson and $1.9 million each for Camden, Jersey City, and the Essex County Sheriff.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) would strip sanctuary cities of Community Development Block Grants and certain other funds. New Jersey received more than $128 million from CDBG this year, including $14.3 million for Newark and $17.5 million that went to the state government. The money is used to build and rehabilitate housing, fund public works projects, revitalize business districts, support homeless shelters, and assist other programs. CDBG funding went to 43 municipalities and 15 counties in New Jersey in 2016.

It’s unclear whether such bills or policies would survive the inevitable legal challenges. The Constitution forbids federal “commandeering” of local jails to enforce federal law, and the Supreme Court has banned highly coercive conditions on federal funding.

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