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Immigration

US 'sanctuary cities' to protect against possible Trump deportations

With President-elect Donald Trump threatening aggressive action against illegal migrants, liberal mayors are reassuring their immigrant populations that they’re safe. But that task may prove difficult.

USA Chicago Skyline John Hancock Center (picture-alliance/Robert Harding/A. Hall)

Chicago, and 38 other US cities, are self-proclaimed 'sanctuaries' for immigrants.

The mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel gave a speech Monday addressing the nearly half-million undocumented  immigrants who live in the city.

"To all those who are, after Tuesday's election, very nervous and filled with anxiety, you are safe in Chicago, you are secure in Chicago and you are supported in Chicago," said Emanuel. "Chicago will always be a sanctuary city."

His speech came one day after President-elect Donald Trump, in a televised interview, doubled-down on his campaign promise to immediately deport as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants out of the estimated 11 million currently in the US.

An officer of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency arrests a suspected undocumented immigrant in Mableton, Georgia

An officer of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency arrests a suspected undocumented immigrant in Mableton, Georgia

In the past week, the mayors of several large cities, including New York and Seattle, have spoken out against Trump’s plans with a promise of their own: that they’ll serve as "sanctuary cities" for immigrants.

What is a sanctuary city?

Sanctuary cities are at least as old as San Francisco’s 1989 ordinance preventing city police from enforcing immigration law. Their numbers increased under the Obama Administration, which deported a record 2.5 million people between 2009 and 2015, earning the president the nickname "deporter-in-chief" from pro-immigrant groups.

In the US, it is the federal government’s job to investigate violations of immigration law. There is a specific agency for this - the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known commonly as ICE. Only they have the authority to make arrests and begin deportation proceedings.

Nevertheless, ICE often asks local police to report suspected undocumented immigrants or detain them for ICE to question. In other words, local law enforcement is expected to serve as the eyes and ears of the federal government.

Immigrant students protest deportations in Los Angeles in 2012

Immigrant students protest deportations in Los Angeles in 2012

Not so in sanctuary cities.

There is no legal definition of the term, but Kemi Bello, spokesperson for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, tells DW that "for our purposes, we view sanctuary cities as places that either limit participation of their local law enforcement agency in helping ICE carry out deportations, or refuse … altogether."

In Chicago, for example, the "Welcoming City Ordinance" prohibits city police from enforcing immigration law. If they were to arrest a person for theft, police would not be allowed to inquire whether the suspect is a US citizen.

If this same person were about to be released from jail and ICE wished to question him about his immigration status, Chicago police would not be allowed to "expend their time responding to ICE inquiries," according to the ordinance. When city police in a sanctuary city refuse to accept an ICE request to hold a prisoner, they are not breaking federal law. The requests are non-binding, meaning that they are indeed requests and not orders.

All in all, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center reports that such ordinances exist in 39 cities, including the country’s three largest cities New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In addition, four states - California, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut - and 364 counties have related laws on the books, although there is much variety among them, says Bello.

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Sanctuary cities "are not preventing ICE from doing their job," says Cesar Cuauhtemoc Garcia Hernandez, law professor at the University of Denver and author of the 2015 book "Crimmigration Law." They’re just demanding that ICE actually comply with the Constitution and get a warrant before detaining a suspect, he tells DW.

No court has ruled that sanctuary cities' ordinances are unconstitutional. In fact, the legal battle could end up going in their favor. A federal court ruled in October that ICE’s requests - not the cities’ refusals - are unlawful, arguing that ICE is overstepping its authority by asking police to detain suspects without a warrant, which is forbidden in the 4th Amendment of the Constitution.

 The “Donald Trump Act”

Sanctuary cities once again became a focal point of the debate on immigration policy in the run-up to the recent presidential election. In July last year,  a young woman named Kate Steinle was shot to death in San Francisco allegedly by an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who had already been deported from the US five times. Her death soon became political, with then-candidate Trump declaring that the murder was "disgraceful and totally preventable."

In response to the killing, Republican legislators crafted a bill seeking to punish sanctuary cities by withholding federal funding if they refused to cooperate with ICE. It was nicknamed the "Donald Trump Act" by Democrats who felt that Trump had helped politicize the murder trial.

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Democrats managed to block the legislation, but Trump promised during his campaign that as president he would crack down on sanctuary cities which "have resulted in so many needless deaths."

Legal battles aside, Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, a punishment he has vowed to carry out even without the approval of Congress. Cities like Chicago could lose millions of dollars, mostly in the form of federal grants for city projects.

The showdown has yet to begin. Trump doesn’t take office until January 2017. In the meantime, some of the most powerful mayors in the US seem at least as resolute as Trump in their relationship with the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

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