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5 things to know about sanctuary cities

There’s a standoff brewing between some city police chiefs and President-elect Donald Trump – here’s a breakdown of what it all means


The Rev. Annie Steinberg-Behrman holds a sign while listening to speakers at a meeting at City Hall in San Francisco by city leaders and community activists to reaffirm the city’s commitment to being a sanctuary city Monday, Nov. 14, 2016.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

In the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking presidential victory, police chiefs in a number of “sanctuary cities” have spoken out against the president-elect’s immigration policies, stating that they will not use their police force as an extension of federal immigration enforcement. The following is a brief breakdown of what you should know about sanctuary cities, as well as a summary of the arguments in what is likely to be a protracted battle between local law enforcement and the Trump administration.

1. What are sanctuary cities?

“Sanctuary city” is an imprecise term with multiple meanings. Generally, it is used for cities that are viewed as lenient toward undocumented immigrants. It can be used in reference to cities that don’t cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, such as ignoring federal requests to keep an undocumented immigrant detained. It is also used to refer to cities that enact policies that prevent local police or other city workers from asking about the immigration status of a person for the purpose of prosecuting them solely for violating immigration laws.

Los Angeles began enforcing a version of the latter definition in 1979 via a police mandate known as Special Order 40, which states, “Officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person. Officers shall not arrest nor book persons for violation of title 8, section 1325 of the United States Immigration code (Illegal Entry).”

Since then, a number of cities have become associated with the term. Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. are just a few that have fallen under the label, although some city officials avoid the broad classification.

2. Sanctuary cities have come under fire before.

If the term sounds familiar, that’s because it was the focal point of a firestorm in San Francisco after the murder of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in July 2015. The suspect in the case, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, is an undocumented immigrant with a long criminal history and multiple prior deportations. He was released by San Francisco police a few months prior to the murder, despite a federal request to keep him in custody.

Trump cited the case during his speech at this year’s Republican National Convention, saying, “My opponent wants sanctuary cities. But where was the sanctuary for Kate Steinle?”

The murder trial is set to begin in February.

3. What is Trump’s position on the issue?

Outlining Trump’s policies as he prepares for Inauguration Day is admittedly tricky, given that they are murky and subject to sudden shifts. But he has clearly taken a combative stance against cities that fall under the sanctuary category. As he prepares to deport as many as three million immigrants from the United States, he has threatened to block federal funding to any city with sanctuary policies.

4. Some police chiefs and other officials are taking a clear stance against Trump on the matter.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said last week, “We are not going to engage in law enforcement activities solely based on somebody’s immigration status. We are not going to work in conjunction with Homeland Security on deportation efforts. That is not our job, nor will I make it our job,” the Los Angeles Times reported. He’s one of many chiefs who have outright rejected aiding the feds with immigration enforcement.

Here’s what Tuscon Police Chief Chris Magnus had to say on the issue, from the Arizona Daily Star: “It is important our residents understand that the policies and practices put in place over the past decade to direct and clarify how our officers interact with undocumented persons and handle immigration enforcement issues are not changing. We will not compromise our commitment to community policing and public safety by taking on immigration enforcement responsibilities that appropriately rest with federal authorities.”

And here’s a statement from the Denver Police Department, via the Denver Post: “Immigration enforcement is handled at the federal level — not by local law enforcement. The Denver Police Department has not participated in those enforcement efforts in the past and will not be involved in the future.”

Aurora, Chicago, Seattle, New York City, Nashville – the list goes on of police departments and city officials taking a stand against Trump.

5. This is an issue that agencies argue could potentially threaten investigations and public safety.

Law enforcement officials have argued that barring officers from asking subjects about their immigration status allows witnesses and victims to speak more freely about crimes, without fear of deportation.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Scroggin told the Times, “We just want people to come forward so we have a better community. It doesn’t matter whether they’re an immigrant or going through the process of citizenship. Whatever it is, we want to hear from them. We don’t want them to not cooperate. It’s important to keep the community safe.”

The concerns that a reversal of these policies would fracture communities and potentially threaten public safety come in an era when police agencies are arguably working harder to rebuild trust in their communities. While there’s no telling whether Trump will follow through on his threat to block funds to these cities come Jan. 20, or how cities will react to such a maneuver, there is no doubt this could get ugly.

Officers, what’s your stance on the issue? Do you serve in a sanctuary city? Sound off in the comments below.

Cole Zercoe previously served as Senior Associate Editor of Lexipol’s and His award-winning features focus on the complexity of policing in the modern world.

Contact Cole Zercoe