As Vermont Cities Look To Formalize Sanctuary Status, What Does 'Sanctuary' Actually Mean?

Dec 14, 2016

Since Donald Trump's election as president, four cities in Vermont have taken steps to declare or discuss declaring themselves sanctuary cities, as part of a response by communities nationwide to anticipate Trump's proposed immigration policies. But what does "sanctuary city" mean?

During his campaign for president, Donald Trump vowed to cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities and deport millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Shortly after his victory, he said he planned to deport 3 million to 4 million people.

Sanctuary cities are towns or cities that have decided to limit or bar their participation in aiding federal immigration enforcement efforts. But the exact definition of a sanctuary city is not necessarily clear-cut.

Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the New York office of The Migration Policy Institute, spoke to VPR about what these cities are, and whether Trump could cut their funding.

VPR: There is no legal definition for what a sanctuary city is, so what are these cities in Vermont and around the country talking about when they make formal "sanctuary city" declarations?

Chishti: “That's exactly true, there is no legal definition [and] no formal dictionary definition [for sanctuary cities].

“It's a catch-all phrase to define a broad spectrum of policies by states and localities in the last 20 to 30 years [that] encompasses … various levels of non-cooperation by these jurisdictions with the federal government in the enforcement of immigration laws.”

And when you say noncooperation, you mean that these cities are choosing not to, say, ask the immigration status of people living in their cities?

“It could be anything from not asking the status of people … or [not] sharing that information with the federal government or declining to respect various detainers, which is … [a] request by federal government to hold someone for a [longer] period of time … than state or the local [law] would allow you to do.”

These declarations have been popping up around the country in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles and much smaller communities such as Winooski and Montpelier. Is your office seeing these designations as a direct response to President-elect Trump? Because some sanctuary cities have already been in place, and others have been declared since Trump was elected.

“The phenomenon actually started in the 1980s by a set of churches around the country which were concerned about actions against Central American refugees fleeing civil war. There was an attempt to give people some sense of security that they would not allow the immigration service agents to come to those premises.

“Many cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco around the same time had policies adopted which would require officials not to ask about immigration status of people. This was generally a very small phenomenon.

“The sanctuary cities phenomenon as we know it today became much more vibrant in beginning in 2008 to 2014 because of a special enforcement program called Secure Communities, under which everyone who has fingerprinted at a local jail goes to prison would be matched against a federal immigration database. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would request that local jurisdiction to hold that person until they came to pick that person [up] because of their deportability.

“Now, a lot of local jurisdictions cities and states were resistant to this because it included a large number of people who are not violent criminals. [They] had a traffic violation, had deep roots in the communities, had families here [and] had been here for a long time.

“[In 2014], the federal government replaced the Secure Communities program with a new program called the Priorities Enforcement Program, which was meant to make these communities be much more cooperative."

Let's take a look at this federal funding issue. Some sanctuary cities seem emboldened because local leaders don't believe that Trump can actually follow through very easily on his threat to deny funding to sanctuary cities. Is that the case, and if so why would it be difficult for Washington to deny those funds?

“I think will be very hard for any administration to impose these kind of sanctions, mostly because of the of the concept of constitutional federalism in our country. We are a country with divided government; the government has some responsibilities, states and localities have their own.

“As the Supreme Court has said rather boldly in the Affordable Care Act, the federal government cannot really hold the gun to a state and locality to say, 'If you don't do ‘x’, we will not give you funding.'

“Under our constitutional system, we cannot force a state or local government to do anything that the federal government is supposed to be doing and to penalize them for that.”