A brief history of “sanctuary cities”

US president-elect Trump wants to deport 2 million to 3 million people.
US president-elect Trump wants to deport 2 million to 3 million people.
Image: Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Since winning the election, president-elect Donald Trump has reiterated his campaign promises on immigration, vowing to erect a border wall (or fence?) and deport between 2 million and 3 million undocumented immigrants.

His plan has drawn rebukes from many city and county officials, some of whom plan to take a stand. Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed said the city wouldn’t use local police to enforce immigration policies, and Austin’s newly elected sheriff, Sally Hernandez, has vowed to turn the city into Texas’ first “true” sanctuary city. Never one to cede the last word, Trump said he would cut federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities.”

But how does local government ignore the directives of a US president in the first place?

The “sanctuary city” concept grew out of resistance to a 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program, which compared fingerprints collected by local jails to a federal immigration database. ICE would send orders to local officials asking them to detain anyone with fingerprints that matched possible undocumented immigrants, even if they were never charged with crimes. Some cities refused to comply, declaring themselves sanctuaries.

Lena Graber, special projects attorney at The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, says the number of detainee orders has exploded since 2008. The problem, she says, is that such orders meant individuals could be detained regardless of criminal charges, or after their charges were cleared. In some cases, the detainees were even American citizens. The issue eventually went to court and in 2014, a federal judge in Oregon ruled that detainee orders violated the Fourth Amendment’s search-and-seizure clause.

That decision, along with others around the country, put local police chiefs and sheriffs in an even trickier spot: They could comply with ICE requests, violating the Fourth Amendment and opening themselves up to lawsuits, or they could refuse and earn the ire of federal authorities. So far, five states, 365 counties, and 37 cities have refused to comply with ICE detainee requests, according to The Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

While the legal battle over sanctuary for undocumented immigrants is more recent, the concept is much older. In the 1980s, a coalition of activists, church leaders, and sympathetic citizens defied federal law in order to help Central American refugees fleeing civil war cross the border. It was a sort of “underground railroad,” says Reverend Noel Andersen, a national grassroots coordinator at the Church World Service. Anderson said some church leaders faced felony prosecutions for their participation at the time; those same leaders are now girding themselves for a showdown with Trump.

“This is not a study anymore,” he says. “What’s happening is tragic. It’s going to have tragic consequences for communities and it’s a trial to respond to these communities.”