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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

What Are 'Sanctuary Cities' and Why Does Trump Hate Them So Much?

One of Donald Trump's lesser-known immigration policies could have major impacts on cities across the US.

Donald Trump in Cincinnati on Thursday. Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Wednesday night at the Phoenix Convention Center, Donald Trump served up a hot plate of the same anti-immigrant fervor his base has been scarfing down since the start of his campaign. White nationalists loved the message, liberals loathed it, and some of Trump's Hispanic supporters—yeah, he has quite a few—found themselves reconsidering their positions.

During his speech, Trump renewed his commitment to some of his most famous, most controversial immigration proposals: building a big wall on the Mexican border, getting Mexico to pay for it "100 percent," and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, all massive undertakings that have been criticized as being massively expensive and also bad ideas in the first place.


But among the ten bullet points in his immigration plan, Trump also included the promise to "block funding for sanctuary cities."

In case you need a refresher on right-wing talking points, a "sanctuary city" is a jurisdiction where the local government hinders or just refuses to assist in the federal government's efforts to deport people. This can take the form of written statutes, or just unofficial policy. For Trump and many other conservatives, this is tantamount to letting lawbreakers go free, and the Republican presidential nominee often highlights horrific crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. This includes the 2015 murder of Kate Steinle in the sanctuary city of San Francisco—a bill that would punish migrants illegally reentering the US after being deported with at least five years in prison, which Trump supports, is nicknamed Kate's Law.

Trump's reasoning goes that violent crime will be reduced if we deport undocumented immigrants, and sanctuary cities are standing in the way of his brand of law and order. To encourage these towns to change their ways, Trump wants to stop them from receiving federal funds, a policy other Republicans have been fighting for in Congress.

But not all sanctuary cities are alike. According to Faye Hipsman, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, there's not one answer to the question of what a sanctuary city even is. "It can mean a whole range of different things," she told VICE.


Los Angeles—often cited as the first sanctuary city—is one of the most immigration-friendly areas in the country. Currently, the county keeps Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents out of its jails, and the local school board remains committed to stop the ICE from sniffing around public school classrooms. But there are more moderate policies in place in relatively conservative jurisdictions that could also be called sanctuary cities. A policy in Gaston County, North Carolina, to name just one example, simply mandates that police not ask anyone about his or her immigration status.

As for the motivations behind the laws, it's hardly just bleeding-heart liberalism, or "political correctness," the bogeyman Trump loves to invoke. Many of these municipalities are actually worried about their bottom lines. For instance, California's very conservative Orange County decided a year ago that even if the ICE wanted the county to detain undocumented immigrants past their release date the county would refuse for fear that inmates would have grounds to sue the country for violating their rights.

Apart from legal liability, according to Hipsman, "the reason why [cities] think these noncompliance policies are a good idea is that they're actually safer." Sure, pundits like Bill O'Reilly claim that Obama administration policies like his Priority Enforcement Program make him "complicit" in the murder of Kate Steinle, but focusing on individual atrocities obscures the larger picture.


To use Los Angeles as an example again, one in ten residents in that county is undocumented. Policies that might result in residents being deported for minor infractions could breed widespread distrust of law enforcement, the thinking goes. Consequently, Hipsman said, local policymakers "argue that when the threat of deportation is there, it really undermines their ability to do their jobs, and do community policing and solve crimes."

If the term "sanctuary city" is more complicated than it appears on first glance, so too is the proposal to stop federal money from going to these places. When Trump ad-libbed,"We block the funding. No more funds," during his Wednesday speech, it may have given the impression that he'll really be pinching the money hose and putting a strain on these jurisdictions. That's not likely, according to Hipsman: "It's not like they're defunding an entire city's law enforcement department." Instead, she pointed to a small number of relevant funding programs the Obama administration has already looked into suspending, like the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which provides money to jails that hold undocumented immigrants, and another called Justice Assistance Grants. Those are the programs that would likely be cut off for sanctuary cities during a Trump presidency, if he could get the requisite bills through Congress.

And let's not forget that Obama spent most of his administration cracking down on immigration, deporting a record number of people during his eight years in office. Obama's Department of Justice even looked into defunding sanctuary cities in July, but it looks like he has abandoned that strategy. Far from opening the borders, according to Hipsman, that's really just a negotiating strategy.

ICE negotiates with uncooperative municipalities and often arrives at compromises, like when LA County agreed last year to give the federal agency access to some immigrant inmates. You could call that negotiation tolerating non-compliance. But, Hipsman argued, you could "also see it as a give and take, so they can get as much cooperation as possible."

Because even if you cut their funding, she said, "some jurisdictions aren't going to comply no matter what."

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