As Trump Moves Forward On Immigration Plan, 'Sanctuary Cities' Push Back President Donald Trump has vowed to withhold federal funds from "sanctuary cities" to compel local officials and police to help enforce federal immigration law. As cities push back, it's not clear if the plan is workable.

As Trump Moves Forward On Immigration Plan, 'Sanctuary Cities' Push Back

As Trump Moves Forward On Immigration Plan, 'Sanctuary Cities' Push Back

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

President Donald Trump has vowed to withhold federal funds from "sanctuary cities" to compel local officials and police to help enforce federal immigration law. As cities push back, it's not clear if the plan is workable.


President Trump has scored his first success in his effort to get more local authorities to cooperate with immigration enforcement. The jail in Florida's Miami-Dade County will now honor federal requests to hold inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. The mayor made the change in response to Trump's Wednesday executive order which threatens funding cuts to sanctuary cities.

In a moment, we'll hear from NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. First, Martin Kaste joins us from Seattle to talk about the administration's broader effort. Hi, Martin.


SHAPIRO: We've been talking about sanctuary cities all week. How are they technically defined in this context?

KASTE: Well, there isn't a set legal definition here. This is more of a label. It's sort of political marketing. Both sides use this phrase. It generally describes places where the local officials are perceived to be shielding people who are in the country illegally. In practice, that can mean everything from the very street level, where cops are just told not to ask people about their immigration status, all the way up to official policies at the county jails, where they refuse to honor requests from the federal immigration authorities to hold people who are suspected of being in the country illegally.

Those are called detainer requests. And that's what was at issue in Miami-Dade. The jail there had stopped honoring those requests a few years ago. Now the mayor there told them to go back and honor those requests and hold those people until federal authorities can come get them.

SHAPIRO: So when we look at what kind of definition of sanctuary city the Trump administration is planning to use, do you think that that's it - failure to honor detainer requests?

KASTE: It might go beyond that. This executive order gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the discretion to designate which jurisdictions are sanctuaries. And the order focuses on this 1996 federal law which forbids local officials from putting gag orders on jails and on police departments when it comes to people's immigration status.

Basically, the law says you can't hide information you have about people's immigration status. The Trump administration seems to think a lot of places are clearly violating that law, but some legal experts I've talked to say that's going to be hard to prove because a lot of these places are purposely not collecting that information about immigration status. So if that's the case, they can't be accused of withholding that information.

SHAPIRO: I think a fear that a lot of activists have is that local police will just start asking people their immigration status. Is that something Washington can demand police officers do?

KASTE: No. Really in our system, I mean every constitutional expert I've talked to says the federal government can't require local police to do the federal government's job. Barry Friedman's a constitutional law scholar at NYU. He specializes in policing. And he says the feds can't require local cops to do this because federal and local authorities operate in what he calls different spheres.

BARRY FRIEDMAN: Each is free to go about its business in its own sphere, not interfering with the other. And it's kind of a noninterference rule that we have, which, again, doesn't mean that there isn't cooperation. There's very often cooperation, but the cooperation is voluntary.

KASTE: And I should note here that this is really very American. In other Western countries, national governments have a lot more power to compel cooperation from the local police, and cops often do help with immigration enforcement. In our system, the president's leverage is really just money. And that's why the Trump administration is threatening to cut funding.

SHAPIRO: Federal funding comes to cities in so many different ways. When we talk about cutting off funding to a sanctuary city, what kind of money is at stake here?

KASTE: Well, we really don't know yet. There's another legal problem here for the Trump administration. The courts have generally found that the federal government can't just penalize, can't be coercive to local cities and states when it comes to withdrawing money. They can't use it as a bludgeon. So what the Trump administration may do is be more targeted - say, cut money related to this, say, for police programs or for courts - that kind of thing.

SHAPIRO: What are you hearing from police about this sort of confrontation with federal authorities?

KASTE: Well, I think police feel kind of ambivalent about all this. There was a recent Pew Research Center survey of cops across the country. And there, a slight majority - 52 percent - said they thought that local police should have an active role in helping to identify people who are in the country illegally. But really what they want is flexibility.

When I talk to cops even in some of the sanctuary cities, they say they don't want to be dragooned into enforcing federal immigration law, but they also still want to keep the option of calling in immigration enforcement on people who are serious offenders or violent criminals. So what they're worried about now is that with this line in the sand being drawn between their cities and the Trump administration, they may lose that flexibility.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Martin Kaste. Thanks a lot.

KASTE: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.