1. Governance
October 6, 2015updated 29 Jul 2021 10:16am

What are "sanctuary cities", and why does Donald Trump hate them so much?

By Barbara Speed

What is a “sanctuary city”?

It’s one of the words flying around during the US presidential nominations: a city that refuses to take legal action against illegal immigrants. Donald Trump, billionaire, TV personality and wildcard in the Republican race, hates them. Hilary Clinton, Democrat frontrunner, backs them, but, in a shaky moment after local woman Kate Steinle was killed by an illegal Mexican immigrant in San Francisco, declared that she couldn’t stand behind a city that didn’t act on federal orders to deport the migrant in question, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez. (He had been convicted on drug charges and had already been deported from the US five times.)

It’s hard to get figures on just how many sanctuary cities there are in the US, as it isn’t a legal term: it simply describes a city’s policy on dealing with immigrants. A recent analysis from the Centre for Immigration studies, however, puts it at around 200. Usually, sanctuary policies manifest themselves in the fact that municipal funds will not be spent on deporting or investigating immigrants, and police officers don’t ask individuals about their immigration status. 

In a way, it’s the ideal hot-button topic, for right-wing politicians in particular: it combines the issue of immigration with the fact that some cities are effectively undermining federal policy by refusing to carry it out on a local level.

San Francisco, where Kate Steinle was killed, is well-known as a sanctuary city. In fact, when Lopez-Sanchez was asked why he came there in the fist place, he said it was because he “knew San Francisco was a sanctuary city where he would not be pursued by immigration officials”, according to ABC news. Cue headlines like “How San Francisco Aided and Abetted the Murder of Kate Steinle“. 

While much of this is right-wing spin, it’s true that immigrants who may have been deported before, for whatever reason, would presumably be attracted to cities more likely to turn a blind eye. Various attempts have been made to clamp down on cities’ wayward take on federal immigration policy, including the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which stated that illegal immigrants convicted of small crimes should be deported, and outlawed cities’ bans on municipal employees reporting peoples’ immigration status. 

All in all, then, it looks like the fate of sanctuary cities could well rest on who enters the White House next year. 

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