The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What exactly are ‘sanctuary cities’ in immigration policy?

(Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP)

“When Donald Trump kind of goes after these phantom sanctuary cities and talks about how bad they are, basically what he’s going after is police chiefs. And I trust police chiefs, in terms of knowing what should be done to keep their communities safer, and police departments and mayors, a lot more than I trust Donald Trump.”

— Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, interview on CNN, Sept. 2, 2016

There has been a lot of focus on “sanctuary cities” in the presidential campaign, especially in relation to illegal immigration and crime. Opponents of illegal immigration, including Donald Trump, have called for an end to sanctuary policies, arguing that they protect undocumented immigrants from criminal prosecution.

When asked about sanctuary cities in a recent interview, Kaine answered that Trump is going after “phantom sanctuary cities” and that police chiefs are making decisions to make their communities safer. Host Chris Cuomo asked Kaine what he meant by “phantom,” and Kaine explained his experience as a mayor and governor in Virginia in deciding not to participate in a federal immigration enforcement program.

A campaign spokeswoman clarified that the nominee was referring to the fact that local governments are implementing “overarching policies and practices that will make their communities safer” — rather than making policies to shield violent criminals, as opponents of such policies contend.

So we decided to explore this issue further and clear up the facts about sanctuary cities.

The Facts

There’s no official definition of “sanctuary,” but it generally refers to rules restricting state and local governments from alerting federal authorities about people who may be in the country illegally.

Sanctuary policies came under fresh criticism after the July 2015 death of Kate Steinle, a woman who was shot and killed in San Francisco, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant and repeat felon who had been deported five times to Mexico. San Francisco police had released him from custody after drug charges were dropped, despite a request from the Department of Homeland Security to deport him.

Immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility. State and local law enforcement officials can decide to what extent they want to cooperate with the federal government on immigration enforcement.

According to an analysis of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) records by the Texas Tribune, ICE identified at least 165 cities and counties that had specific policies limiting cooperation on immigration enforcement. Researchers on both sides of the immigration issue have found more than 300 local jurisdictions that have such policies.

Major cities like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Baltimore and Boston are sanctuary cities. Interestingly, New York had sanctuary policies even under former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, now an adviser to Trump’s campaign.

ICE can issue an “immigration detainer,” a request to be notified when a “criminal alien” (a noncitizen convicted of a crime) is being released from a state or local law enforcement agency. This is so ICE can take custody of such people when they’re released and figure out whether they’re subject to deportation.

But some local or state law enforcement agencies decide not to tell ICE when a “criminal alien” is released, for several reasons. Some agencies say it leads to mistrust between the community and law enforcement, because victims and potential witnesses might not come forward to report crimes if they are afraid of being reported to federal authorities for their immigration status.

Donald Trump unveiled a 10-part immigration policy plan during a speech in Phoenix on Aug. 31 after meeting with Mexico's president earlier in the day. (Video: The Washington Post)

Reluctance among local and state agencies grew after a DHS program failed to prioritize deportation of convicted immigrants, and state and local governments saw it as a drain on their resources. With many local and state agencies strapped for cash, they declined to cooperate in what is ultimately a federal responsibility.

Between January 2014 and September 2015, local and state law enforcement agencies declined 18,646 ICE immigration detainers, the Texas Tribune found. California had the most declined detainers, by far.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has criticized San Francisco for releasing the suspect in Steinle’s killing, but she supports sanctuary cities and thinks such policies can help further public safety.

In 2015, Senate Democrats blocked legislation that would have cracked down on sanctuary jurisdictions by pulling their federal funds if they didn’t cooperate with the federal government. In his big immigration speech last week, Trump proposed blocking federal funds to sanctuary cities.

The Obama administration has taken steps to divert undocumented immigrants from sanctuary cities. In February, the Justice Department revealed a new policy that gives ICE — not cities or states — the first rights to an inmate who is flagged for deportation and released from a federal prison.

The Bottom Line

Local and state governments can decide not to participate in federal immigration enforcement — which ultimately is a federal responsibility. Many local jurisdictions do cooperate, with the idea that they’re multiplying forces to find removable noncitizens.

Kaine rebuts arguments by opponents of sanctuary cities, like Trump, as “phantom” claims that portray such policies as designed to protect undocumented immigrants who commit crimes.

This claim by Kaine highlights the core difference in the views of those who support and oppose sanctuary policies. Kaine and Clinton believe that local law enforcement should continue to decide whether to cooperate with federal authorities on enforcing immigration, because they are doing what is best for their communities. Law enforcement agencies that support sanctuary policies say they ensure that victims and witnesses of crime feel safe enough to report the crime to police, without the fear of possible deportation.

We will not rate this claim, as “phantom” is more based on Kaine’s opinion and therefore not fact-checkable.

No Rating

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form.

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter.