What Are Sanctuary Cities, and Why Does Donald Trump Keep Talking About Them?

There has been much discussion about immigration, both legal and illegal, by candidates in the 2016 presidential race, especially on the Republican side. In fact, one could be tempted to say that the issue was nearly single-handedly responsible for the withdrawal of Florida Senator Marco Rubio — the child of legal Cuban immigrants — from the race, due to questions about his support for undocumented migrants from Latin America. Rubio had passionately defended his Senate “Gang of Eight” bill that had been criticized by Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and others. In the end, doubts about his honesty and position on this issue cost him support in the primaries.

No other candidate has made the prosecution and possible deportation of undocumented and illegal immigrants so central to his campaign as Donald Trump. The New York businessman, while claiming that he “love[s] the Mexican people” and that he employs thousands of Mexican workers also denounced illegal Mexican migrants, pointedly stating in his campaign kickoff speech in New York that, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Trump has promised to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep undocumented immigrants out of the country and has threatened to deport as many as 11 million of them in an unprecedented sweep of the country. Another campaign promise he’s made involves changing laws around what are known as “sanctuary cities” where undocumented or illegal immigrants can feel safe knowing that the local municipality will not prosecute them for violations of federal immigration law.

This phenomenon, which started in Los Angeles in 1979, theoretically protects immigrants who might be working illegally or who have followed family members that already live in the United States. While it’s true that some of these people, who make up 3.5 percent of the U.S. population, are invaluable sources of labor, family supporters and components of local economies, it’s also true that as many as 1.2 million of them are actually criminals, involved in anything from gang-related activity to selling drugs to murder-for-hire.

Their undocumented status allows them to “slip through the cracks” as far as documentation, paying taxes on income and consuming municipal and government resources. While a certain number of business owners who might employ them are willing to tolerate their lack of documentation, many ordinary citizens are worried that their special status protects them and allows them to operate with impunity when it comes to obeying the law.

The idea of a “sanctuary city” is that a municipality will refuse to spend money or resources on enforcing federal laws that a majority of its citizens feel are either unfair or discriminatory. Police officers are not allowed to question non-offenders’ citizenship status under municipal law or are simply told not to do it as departmental policy.

Los Angeles was the first such sanctuary city, and in the decades following its self-designation, 30 other major cities have followed, including New York City; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; San Francisco; San Diego; Miami; Houston; Minneapolis; Denver; Seattle; and Salt Lake City. These specific cities have local laws in place to protect undocumented and illegal immigrants from police questioning.

Surprisingly, these cities also tend to have higher crime rates than non-sanctuary cities. In fact, a study at Northwestern University found that city populations that had a 10 percent increase in the share of immigrants saw an increase of 1.2 percent in property crimes. Mexican immigrants specifically were found to be 3.5 to 5 times more prone to committing crime than American citizens.

As worries about sanctuary cities have grown, a number of high-profile cases have spotlighted the trouble with allowing this demographic segment to escape thorough scrutiny. In San Francisco, on July 1, 2015, a homeless drug addict named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez fired a federal agent’s stolen handgun he had found in the Embarcadero, an area typically crowded with tourists, and a bullet struck 32-year-old bystander Kathryn Steinle, who died at a local hospital two hours later.

It was discovered that Lopez-Sanchez was an illegal immigrant who had been deported from the U.S. on five separate occasions but had criminally re-entered the United States each time. Lopez-Sanchez is now facing the possibility of life in prison on second-degree murder charges. But that’s cold comfort to Steinle’s father who fought in vain to save his daughter’s life in the aftermath of the shooting.

Subsequent investigation found that Lopez-Sanchez had actually been arrested and convicted a total of seven times in Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Texas for felony heroin possession and manufacturing. Using more than 30 aliases, he had served a total of 17 years in U.S. jails and had been deported after each sentence. At the time of the shooting, Lopez-Sanchez was on probation in Texas.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons had turned him over to San Francisco authorities on March 26, 2015. They in turn had placed him in San Francisco County Jail for a 20-year-old felony charge of possessing and selling marijuana. But instead of sending him back to federal holding when the charges were dismissed, Lopez-Sanchez was released on March 26, according to San Francisco sanctuary city policy, despite a detainer being issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requesting he be kept in custody until he could be taken back to federal prison. Further investigation of Lopez-Sanchez revealed a federal court had recommended that he be placed in “a federal medical facility as soon as possible” less than three months following his fifth deportation.

Lopez-Sanchez is far from the only undocumented immigrant felon who has been released by sanctuary city authorities despite being wanted by the federal government for deportation. ICE found that more than 9,000 others were similarly released in the first three quarters of 2014. Of those, 69 percent were still at large at the beginning of the following year. And of that 69 percent, 1,377 had prior criminal arrests. Out of the 6,460 total illegals who were wanted for criminal acts, 58 percent of them had records of prior felonies and/or violent misdemeanors.

So clearly, there is a problem with serial criminals and recidivism among a significant number of undocumented and illegal immigrants. As it turns out, Donald Trump’s seemingly conjectural statements are not hyperbole.

In the wake of the Steinle murder, politicians have rebuked both local and federal immigration law and practice, specifically Barack Obama’s executive orders curbing ICE enforcement of border protection and his allowing of temporary work permits for five million undocumented migrants. Obama was notably silent on the Steinle case while Jeb Bush and Donald Trump savaged his policies.

However, Trump went further and targeted Bush, who had previously advocated a path to legal citizenship for immigrants, with a viral video known as “Act of Love,” after Jeb Bush’s euphemism for the act of illegal immigration. Political pundits point to this video highlighting Bush’s statements as contributing significantly to his lackluster campaign showing and to his ultimate resignation from the presidential race in early 2016.

The House of Representatives has now passed what is referred to as “Kate’s Law,” which blocks municipalities and states from receiving federal funding for law enforcement if they refuse to communicate with ICE due to sanctuary city policy. However, the bill was rejected by the Senate, and its chances for resurrection appear dim as Obama has said he would veto it in favor of immigration overhaul legislation that’s more amenable to Democrats.

It’s clear from the Steinle case and others that more work needs to be done in this area, and it may take a presidential mandate to accomplish it. Whether Donald Trump can actually effect all the policies he’s discussed is an open question, but certainly, the points he’s raised thus far in his campaign are completely valid ones.