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Suspected undocumented immigrants are transferred out of the holding area after being processed in Tucson, Ariz., in August 2012.
The Lowdown

What Trump and Others Get Wrong About ‘Sanctuary Cities’

Ahead of the presidential debate, setting the record straight on a hot-button immigration issue.

At the first presidential debate Monday evening, you may hear some bluster over “sanctuary cities” — communities that don’t fully cooperate with federal officials to help deport immigrants. In fact, Donald Trump has made them a focus of his immigration platform. During a speech last month, he repeatedly blasted these communities: “We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths,” the Republican candidate promised a crowd in Phoenix, Ariz. “Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars.”

Hillary Clinton, for her part, has expressed support for sanctuary cities during both of her presidential runs, believing that immigrants in those communities may otherwise be afraid to report crimes and cooperate with the police.

Much of the fervor over sanctuary cities was ignited after the sheriff’s department of San Francisco, a self-proclaimed sanctuary community, released a five-time deportee from jail after drug charges against him were dropped. Three months later, in July 2015, that man, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, allegedly shot and killed 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle on a San Francisco pier (the case has yet to go to trial). The outcry from lawmakers was severe. “We must send the message that defiance of our laws will no longer be tolerated — whether it’s by the sanctuary cities themselves or the illegal reentry offenders that they harbor,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in October. Even Clinton criticized San Francisco for releasing Lopez-Sanchez.

This past July, a proposal to defund so-called “sanctuary cities,” introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), was blocked by Senate Democrats, and at least 18 states, including Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, have considered comparable bills.

But a lot has been lost in the partisan rhetoric about why sanctuary cities exist and who actually supports them. Here’s a hint: they’re not all liberal.

How Sanctuary Cities Work: When Cops, Jails, and Sheriffs Go Rogue

There’s no legal definition of a sanctuary city. It generally refers to any city, town, or county that doesn’t fully cooperate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency in charge of deporting immigrants. Not cooperating could take the form of a city ordinance or police department policy that explicitly prohibits cops from asking about someone’s immigration status. It could be a sheriff’s department that will not tell ICE when it encounters someone potentially deportable. And oftentimes, county jails and sheriff’s departments ignore “detainer requests” they receive from ICE. In other words, when ICE asks a jail to keep people behind bars beyond the intended release date — giving the agency time to take those people into federal immigration custody — the jail releases them instead.

What Everyone Gets Wrong: The Red-State, Blue-State Divide

Not all sanctuary cities are liberal urban centers like San Francisco. Sheriff’s departments across the country, including in heavily Republican districts, announced in 2014 that they would no longer honor detainer requests. Instead, they would require ICE to get a formal warrant or court order before jailing someone longer than they otherwise would have.

The reasoning in places like rural Oregon, eastern Washington, and Kansas — laid out in policy memos and press releases — is to avoid expensive lawsuits. Federal court judges in Pennsylvania and Oregon ruled in 2014 that detainer requests are not legally binding, meaning that counties jailing people based solely on those detainers may be violating those individuals’ rights.

As a result, cities that attempted to shield themselves from potential lawsuits landed on lists of so-called sanctuary cities, despite some sheriffs’ and county officials’ objection to the label.

Insider’s Perspective: Insights From a Kansas Sheriff

In Shawnee County, Kan., a Republican district, the Department of Corrections announced in May 2014 that they would no longer honor ICE detainers as a result of the federal court rulings. Major Timothy Phelps, deputy director of the department, said he got “five to 10 calls” when their county ended up on a list of so-called sanctuary cities. “Some of them were from citizens, some were from more conservative think tanks calling us and demanding us to explain it. There was one guy that wrote me several times [saying], ‘I’m fired up about this issue because you’re putting Americans at risk,’” Phelps said.

“I have an obligation to the taxpayer that I’m not going to overly burden them with a bunch of litigation that I know we’re going to lose,” he said. “That would be silly, just to make a political statement.”

Maintaining Autonomy, Locally

During that same speech in August, Trump told his Arizona audience that “our local police will be so happy” when they are enlisted to work with ICE to deport criminal immigrants in their community. But some local law enforcement officials have opposed proposals to limit sanctuary cities because they balk at federal authorities telling them how to do their jobs. “Don’t come down here with some overarching bullshit Republican philosophy from Washington, DC….and tell me how to do my business!” Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand told Louisiana state legislators in a state senate hearing over a statewide ban on sanctuary cities, noting that he too was a Republican. “This bill goes down to discretion of a frontline officer and usurps my authority as a manager in how I’m going to deal with my officers… Give me a break!”

Other officers have expressed fear that imposing limits on sanctuary cities would breed distrust between police and immigrant communities, making their jobs even harder. After North Carolina passed a law requiring officers to fully cooperate with ICE, Jose Lopez, the Durham police chief, told the New York Times, “It will cause individuals to flee the police, on the belief that some minor incident is going to get them deported.”