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Government / Local politics

Across the US, “sanctuary cities” are resisting the Trump administration

In the US, “sanctuary cities” are, in short, places where local officials do not hand over undocumented migrants to federal agents for deportation.

New York, Chicago, Boston, and several major cities in California all hold “sanctuary” status.

On January 25, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order saying that any municipalities that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials would have their funding withdrawn.

On 27 March, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated the government’s position, saying that sanctuary cities would no longer receive Department of Justice grants.

“Failure to deport aliens who are convicted of criminal offenses puts whole communities at risk, especially immigrant communities in the very sanctuary jurisdictions that seek to protect the perpetrators,” he told a White House news briefing.

He said noncompliance “could result in withholding grants, termination of grants, and disbarment or ineligibility for future grants.”

However, the federal government’s statements have roused ire from city officials, whose local policies and personal convictions directly contravene the federal agenda, causing a deep rift between the two and even, in some cases, litigation.

One man speaks for the world. Image: Mathias Wasik.

The battlefield of the courtroom

“President Trump’s latest threat changes nothing,” said a subsequent statement from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. “We will remain a city welcoming of immigrants who have helped make our city the safest big city in the nation. Any attempt to cut NYPD funding for the nation’s top terror target will be aggressively fought in court.”

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh called threats to cut funding “irresponsible and destructive” in his own city. However, he stopped short of threatening litigation. “The safety and well-being of our residents is, and will continue to be, my top priority as Mayor of Boston,” Walsh said in a statement released on March 27.

De Blasio would by no means be the first to legally challenge the Trump presidency on the issue of sanctuary cities.

San Francisco’s resistance outside City Hall. Image: Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

On January 31, San Francisco actively sued the Trump administration. Shortly afterwards, three other northern Californian cities followed suit: Santa Clara County, Salinas City Council, and Richmond. 

“We will be seeking to have the executive order declared unconstitutional and have an injunction issued to enjoin its enforcement,” said Nancy Fineman, a law partner with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, the firm representing the City of Richmond.


She stated, in comments via email, that the president does not have the power to withdraw funding that has already been allocated.

“Under the separation of powers clause of the US constitution, only Congress has the power to disburse money. The president does not have that authority to give or take away money,” she said. “Once Congress appropriates money it cannot take it away.”

The term “sanctuary city” is also open to question there is no fixed definition – there are differences between jurisdictions claiming sanctuary status. “The executive order does not use the term ‘sanctuary cities’ but ‘sanctuary jurisdictions’ which is not defined. What the term ‘sanctuary jurisdiction’ [means] is a big part of the case,” Fineman said. 

This could depend on the individual or body using the term. “What this administration calls a sanctuary policy might be different from what an immigration advocate calls a sanctuary policy,” said University of Denver law professor Christopher Lasch.

Expanding the sanctuaries 

At the beginning of February, California even mulled the possibility of becoming a “sanctuary state”. At the same time, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) also mulled designating itself a “sanctuary in transit” for people in the country illegally. The system links San Francisco to several other towns and cities in the Bay Area.

“We are still working on the resolution,” said Lateefah Simon, who serves on the BART Board of Directors. She added that she would be presenting it to the board “in April”.

Whether “sanctuary” jurisdictions are established or maintained with the sole intention of protecting undocumented migrants is open to question. The City of Richmond’s complaint emphasises the role of immigrants in the local labour force.

“Since the Baby Boomer generation (people born after World War II and before 1965) is heading towards retirement, there is a potential for the labour force to slow down without immigrants and their children being part of the work force. Richmond and the Bay Area need this work force,” the document states.

On March 20, the notoriously wealthy beach city of Malibu, California, adopted sanctuary status.

An unlikely place of protest. Image: Tensaibuta.

“I think some people in Malibu have people working for them who are undocumented,” Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal told the LA Times. However, this doesn’t mean any economic aspects are presently being acknowledged in a widespread way.

“We saw the transformation of the immigration issue from an economic issue into – well, it’s now framed almost entirely in terms of public safety,” said Lasch. “We heard Attorney General Sessions repeat that sanctuary policies are a threat to public safety and to national security.”


Sanctuary status cannot prevent federal immigration officials for nonetheless entering jurisdictions and imposing their own restrictions on undocumented migrants. “Sanctuary suggests that you actually are providing a safe place and so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ will readily concede that they do no offer any safety at all from federal immigration officials,” said Lasch.

Neither federal nor city bodies presently appear too eager to shoulder responsibility, for both legal reasons and in terms of resource allocation.

“Federal immigration enforcement is the business of the federal government … we don’t have a lot of resources to do the jobs that we need to do anyway, so we’re not going to spend our resources on immigration and policing,” said Lasch.

But all the while, the biting uncertainty for undocumented immigrants is only set to get worse. 

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