How Sanctuary Cities Are Plotting to Resist Trump

Ending their sanctuary status would be far more economically devastating than if Trump pulls federal funding

There are an estimated 300 cities, counties and states in the U.S. with sanctuary policies. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

On July 1st, 2015, 32-year-old Kate Steinle was walking with her dad at San Francisco's Pier 14 when one of three bullets fired by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez ricocheted off the pavement and hit Steinle from behind, piercing her aorta. Police arrested Lopez-Sanchez an hour later; an hour after that, Steinle died at a local hospital.

Donald Trump, who had characterized Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists while declaring his candidacy two weeks earlier, seized on the incident as proof.

Lopez-Sanchez was Mexican and in the U.S. illegally. He'd been convicted of seven felonies and deported five times already. He would have been deported a sixth time, but when the drug charge San Francisco police were holding him on was dropped, he was released rather than turned over to ICE.

Trump tweeted his condolences to Steinle's family, and in the coming months he returned to the incident frequently, blaming the tragedy on San Francisco's status as a so-called "sanctuary city," one of the hundreds of municipalities where officials have agreed not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Trump promised that if elected, he would prevent tragedies like Steinle's death in the future by stripping such cities of their federal funding. "We will end the sanctuary cities that have caused so many needless deaths," he declared in a much-hyped speech outlining his immigration proposals in August. "No more funds!"

In 1989, San Francisco officially codified its existing immigrant-friendly stance. The law, passed after the San Francisco Police Department helped INS raid a popular Latino nightclub, declared that none of the city's agencies, including its police force, would "assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law" in the future.

Though San Francisco was one of the first cities to do this, today there are an estimated 300 cities, counties and states with similar policies. There's no official list – just informal tallies kept mostly by groups opposed to the concept. There's no legal definition, either – the language and details differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Both those facts will make it difficult for Trump to fulfill his campaign promise to strip sanctuary cities of federal funding.

Another obstacle for Trump's plan is that the vast majority of major American cities, including the two in which he'll be splitting his time as president, have sanctuary policies in place: Besides San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Denver, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Houston and Dallas all have policies preventing local police from asking about immigration status.

The mayors of those cities have been speaking out, reaffirming their commitment to their cities' sanctuary status. Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales tells Rolling Stone the city receives $6.2 million in federal funding each year, which amounts to about two percent of the city's annual budget. The money helps provide meals for senior centers and housing grants and helps keep the regional airport running. Should that funding disappear under President Trump, Gonzales says it won't be easy, but he and the city council will try to find ways to make up the difference locally.

"If the president-elect chose to pursue this policy that would hurt senior citizens and first-time home buyers for the sake of pushing a policy that creates division and fear in our community, then we would plan and prepare for that," Gonzales says. 

It would have a far more severe economic impact on Santa Fe, the mayor says, if the city abandoned its sanctuary status, rejecting its immigrant population. "We are largely dependent on the immigrant workforce in our tourism industry, in our film economy, in our culinary industries. The 'new immigrants,' they play a critical workforce component, and they provide the right skills and needed skills to be able to offer the services that have made Santa Fe so great."

"If his policies came into place and people were forced back into the underground economy, into the shadows, or [had] to leave Santa Fe out of fear, we would have a massive labor shortage in critical industries," Gonzales says. "That economic impact to us would be far more devastating."

A number of other mayors have expressed sentiments similar to Gonzales. In New York City – which has an annual operating budget of $70 billion and receives an estimated $10.4 billion each year in federal funding – Mayor Bill de Blasio reaffirmed the city's commitment to its sanctuary status shortly after the election.

"We are not going to sacrifice a half-million people who live amongst us, who are part of our communities, whose family members and loved ones happen to be people in many cases who are either permanent residents or citizens – we're not going to tear families apart," de Blasio said.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff has declared her commitment not just to maintaining her city's status, but helping other cities pass similar laws.

And, across the Bay in San Francisco, the city has passed a new resolution stating that "no matter the threats made by President-elect Trump, San Francisco will remain a Sanctuary City."

The cities that should expect a fight if Trump's pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, is confirmed. Sessions, an early ally and adviser to Trump, has crowed that Trump's immigration plan is "exactly the plan America needs." And it's no wonder why: The president-elect's policies closely mirror ones Sessions has proposed in the past. For instance, in 2015 Sessions introduced a Senate bill that proposed cutting off cities who refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities from grants disbursed by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Sessions reiterated that stance in a July statement

Trump may not be willing to wait long enough to see if Sessions is confirmed by the Senate before acting – his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, recently indicated the president-elect was exploring the possibility of suspending federal funding on his very first day in office.

By focusing on sanctuary cities, though, Gonzales says Trump is missing the point – they wouldn't be necessary if the federal government just passed comprehensive immigration reform. "We don't want local tax dollars to have to do the work for Donald Trump and to take on the responsibility of the federal government, which is to deal with immigration," Gonzales says. "And that's really what I would hope they would do before they penalize communities across the country, is that they would pass comprehensive immigration reform that would allow people to come out of the shadows to create some kind of status and really start focusing on creating economic opportunity for all Americans the way he said he would during his campaign."