The subtext to The Washington Post’s report that President Trump and his administration wanted to drop migrants entering the United States into “sanctuary cities” isn’t subtle: The intent was punishment, a form of “retaliation” against heavily Democratic areas like San Francisco.

That idea fits with Trump’s depiction of the groups of migrants entering the United States from Mexico being riddled with criminals, gang members and terrorists. But that would likely be at odds with how residents of those cities likely view immigrants — since those cities tend to be more densely immigrant-heavy than the country on the whole.

Update: On Twitter on Friday afternoon, Trump indicated that the administration is still considering this proposal, despite reported concerns about the feasibility and expense of the idea.

A “sanctuary city” isn’t a place where immigrants living in the country illegally have carte blanche to do what they wish. Instead, they are generally jurisdictions where public officials are limited in their ability to inform immigration authorities about people who are in the country illegally. The intent is to encourage immigrants to work with authorities without fear of deportation in situations where that assistance is important, such as criminal investigations.

Some jurisdictions passed laws or regulations to establish those sorts of protections because they already had large populations of immigrants, particularly Hispanic immigrants. Some places, with smaller immigrant populations, passed such laws in part to show solidarity with undocumented immigrants.

Consider San Francisco, which the administration apparently considered targeting under this proposal. More than a third of the city’s residents are immigrants, many of them from Asia. That’s a substantially higher percentage than the country on the whole, according to the Census Bureau. San Francisco is slightly less heavily Hispanic than the United States overall, which is not uncommon for sanctuary cities.

Looking at 34 sanctuary cities identified by the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, nearly two-thirds had a higher density of immigrants than the United States on the whole, by an average of six percentage points. While just under half the cities had a more densely Hispanic population than the country on the whole, cities with higher Hispanic density were often much higher. The 34 cities were, on average, six points more densely Hispanic than the country on the whole.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Sanctuary cities in California in particular were more heavily immigrant than the United States on the whole, though, again, many of those immigrants are Asian. More new immigrants in the United States are Asian than Hispanic.

The San Francisco metro region — incorporating Oakland and Hayward — is home to an estimated 240,000 undocumented immigrants, according to Pew Research Center data. Across the sanctuary city jurisdictions identified above, there are already an estimated 3.5 million undocumented immigrants.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

It’s worth noting that many, or perhaps most, of those apprehended at the border with Mexico in recent months have arrived seeking asylum in the United States, a legal process that is distinct from illegal immigration. And it’s worth noting, yet again, that immigrants, including immigrants in the country illegally, commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.

Obviously the sudden injection of tens of thousands of people in nearly any city might tax city resources, though it’s not clear what the scale under consideration is in the White House’s aborted plan. But the entire point of sanctuary cities is to make immigrants feel as though they’re an important part of the community. The idea that San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York City would be baffled or outraged at the arrival of new immigrants sort of misses the fact that those cities have been welcoming new immigrants for decades — to the extent that they go out of their way to pass laws offering some protection.