The Call-In: Answering Your Questions About 'Sanctuary Cities' There's no legal definition for a "sanctuary city," but that doesn't stop people from using the term. We answer listeners' questions about what it means to be a sanctuary city.
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The Call-In: Answering Your Questions About 'Sanctuary Cities'

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The Call-In: Answering Your Questions About 'Sanctuary Cities'

The Call-In: Answering Your Questions About 'Sanctuary Cities'

The Call-In: Answering Your Questions About 'Sanctuary Cities'

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There's no legal definition for a "sanctuary city," but that doesn't stop people from using the term. We answer listeners' questions about what it means to be a sanctuary city.



And this is The Call-In, a new segment where you tell us what you're thinking. Last week on the program, we heard about ICE raids happening in several cities around the country. Federal immigration authorities detained more than 600 people. One of the cities where this took place was Austin, Texas. We asked Mayor Steve Adler then what was happening in his so-called sanctuary city.


STEVE ADLER: You know, I'm not real sure what a sanctuary city is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That got us thinking. If he's unclear about the definition of a sanctuary city, other people must have questions, too - and you did.


HANNAH DEFELICE: My name is Hannah DeFelice.

JOHN SAUNDERS: John Saunders, and my question on sanctuary...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And my question is...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: To answer those questions, we called up NPR's Martin Kaste, who's reported on police departments and sanctuary cities.

Hi, Martin.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, so you're going to be our resident expert. We have solicited questions from listeners about what it means to be a sanctuary city. And I want you to listen to this first one.

CLAY HENDRIX: My name is Clay Hendrix. I live in Columbia, S.C., and my question is, how does a city actually become a sanctuary city?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So is there a legal definition?

KASTE: Nope, there sure isn't. It's really branding. It's in the eye of the beholder. The term sanctuary city is used by people who like the idea as well as people who hate the idea. Both sides bandy it about, and it really doesn't - it doesn't mean anything specific. It's sort of what - the term we've started to attach to cities or counties that have sort of a general attitude toward federal enforcement agents of immigration law.

But how that attitude plays out specifically can vary widely and, in fact, does vary widely. And a lot of places that call themselves sanctuary cities actually do a lot of the same things that places that don't call themselves sanctuaries do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, give us some examples. What does it look like in two different cities?

KASTE: Well, there's a lot of speculation about this concern that local law enforcement - police and sheriff's deputies - are going to be part of the actual process of looking for and arresting people who are in the country illegally. That almost never happens. And frankly, regardless of local politics, local police aren't interested in doing that for some very practical reasons. I mean, they - local cops don't know. They're not read into federal immigration law.

The real rub here between the federal government and local law enforcement over the years has been at the jails. It's about whether or not a local jail turns people over to the immigration authorities when immigration authorities identify that there's someone sitting in county jail, maybe on a drunk driving charge or something, who's actually deportable.

And over the past few years, federal immigration authorities have asked local jails to hold on to people a little bit longer so that ICE has time to get the paperwork together to come get them. And that's where they've often let people go because they don't want to get sued.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've got a question from Hannah DeFelice in Boston. She asked...

DEFELICE: ...What the loss of federal funding will mean for people living in sanctuary cities?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's, of course, referring to President Trump's claims that he will withhold federal money from those places.

KASTE: Well, we don't know which money, how much it is. There's kind of a consensus among some of the legal experts I've talked to that the Trump administration probably won't be able to just cut all federal funding to a locality. It's conceivable that what they'll do is be targeted. They'll pull money that's associated with this somehow. Perhaps it would be some money for the local jail, perhaps it would be federal grants for the local police department. It will probably be specific slices of federal money, not the whole thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: John Saunders from Phoenix also had a question.

SAUNDERS: My question is - if people seem to want local police to enforce federal immigration law, I was wondering if there were any other federal laws that local police are required to enforce?


KASTE: That's a good question. Very few, if any. There's really this doctrine of two spheres. Local law enforcement is almost never obliged to help enforce federal law. They often cooperate in that they have task forces together; They do drug enforcement together - that kind of thing. But they're not obliged to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another question about where the line between federal and local law enforcement lies came from Shawn Flickner in Atlanta. He says there were ICE raids there, but the city is also known as a sanctuary city. So I guess the question is - could a city stop federal officers from carrying out an immigration raid?

KASTE: No. No, it - they couldn't. I mean, as far as everybody I've talked to is concerned, there's no sense that they have any legal grounds or authority to stop the federal government from enforcing federal law inside the borders of a city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was NPR's Martin Kaste. We also wanted to hear how police departments understand this issue.

WILLIAM CITTY: I'm William Citty. I'm the police chief in Oklahoma City.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So your city is not a sanctuary city.

CITTY: No, we don't consider ourselves a sanctuary city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's say I am an undocumented person. I am caught speeding in a car, or I commit some sort of infraction. What happens then? I mean, what is the procedure for dealing with someone like that?

CITTY: Well, the procedure would be just like any other. If they're - if we stop them on traffic and they're violating the law, then they're issued a citation. If they don't have a driver's license - and in the state of Oklahoma, if you're not documented, you can't get one - that is a concern and that's an issue.

If we can't figure out and ID who the person is - and many times we will at least process them to try to identify them and then cut them loose. But in most cases, we'll write them a citation and let them go. If it's a more serious crime, like a DUI, then we will actually probably incarcerate that person.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then let ICE know that...

CITTY: The state law requires us here if it's a DUI, if it's a felony - those types of crimes - then the jail has to inquire about whether or not they're here documented or not. And then if the jail feels like they're not, then they contact ICE. And they'll let them do the rest of the investigation. But in and of itself, we don't put retainers or hold people that are undocumented. We leave that up to ICE.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There has been debate about whether "sanctuary cities," quote, unquote, are safer or less safe than other cities. What is your sense of that?

CITTY: Well, I mean, common sense is going to tell you if the public's not afraid to call you to report a crime, then, you know, you're going to be able to investigate that crime. We try to make sure that the Hispanic community knows that we're not going to come into a house if you report a crime and start checking to see if everybody's documented or not. That puts a lot of fear in the community. And right now, there is added fear just because of - politically and what's what's being said. And I think there's a lot of fear. It's just hard for us to overcome that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Oklahoma City Police Chief William Citty. And next week on The Call-In, we'll be talking about the new frontline in the opioid crisis, and we want to hear from you. How has the opioid epidemic touched your life? Call in at 202-216-9217 and leave us a voicemail with your full name, where you're from and what your story is. That number, again - 202-216-9217.

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Trump Vows To End 'Sanctuary Cities,' But No One Can Agree What That Label Means

Trump Vows To End 'Sanctuary Cities,' But No One Can Agree What That Label Means

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Carmen Spoerer, right, rallies among others protesting against sanctuary cities near the Santa Maria courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif. on Aug. 13. Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images hide caption

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Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Carmen Spoerer, right, rallies among others protesting against sanctuary cities near the Santa Maria courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif. on Aug. 13.

Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

During the campaign, Donald Trump railed against "sanctuary cities" — generally understood to be jurisdictions where local law enforcement doesn't cooperate sufficiently with federal immigration authorities. Sanctuary cities were an especially hot issue because of the death of Kate Steinle, a tourist shot by a Mexican national in San Francisco in 2015.

In an August campaign speech, Trump promised to "end" sanctuary cities by blocking their federal funding. But keeping that promise will be complicated by the fact that the term "sanctuary city" has no clear legal meaning. It comes out of the 1980s "sanctuary" movement of Christian churches that sheltered refugees from Central America, but these days the term is used increasingly by groups opposed to illegal immigration. The Center for Immigration Studies, for example, has a map tracking "sanctuary" jurisdictions which "threaten public safety."

"There is no definition of a sanctuary city," says Lena Graber, an attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. She says different places have taken different approaches. "There are a lot of sanctuary policies that are more just about not asking about immigration status by city agencies or law enforcement," she says, while other jurisdictions are called "sanctuaries" because their jails won't hold people at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In the latter case, the jails that don't honor ICE "detainer" requests often do it for reasons that are practical, not political.

The jail in Lafayette Parish, La., for instance, stopped honoring ICE detainers out of a fear of lawsuits by people who might be able to claim they're being held illegally.

"We're depriving them of their libery," says Sheriff Mark Garber, "on a suspicion that hadn't been investigated promptly or acted on at all."

Sheriff Garber says when his predecessor realized the federal government wouldn't indemnify the parish in case of lawsuits, he stopped honoring ICE detainer requests. But that led to accusations that the parish had become a "sanctuary," especially during the last sheriff's election. So when Garber took over, he instituted a compromise policy: the Lafeyette jail will hold people, but for no longer than 48 hours.

"I'm still taking a risk to cooperate with the federal government, because they're not offering me any reciprocal protection," Garber says. "I still think we're exposed, but I'm choosing as the leader in this community to go ahead and draw the bright line at the 48 hours."

Those bright lines are drawn differently in almost every jurisdiction. The King County jail in downtown Seattle, for instance, has a policy of honoring only the ICE detainer requests that come with an order from a judge. Other places take the severity of the person's criminal record into account.

Broadly speaking, the attitude in "sanctuary cities" is that local law enforcement shouldn't help to deport people accused of minor offenses, but "serious criminals" are less deserving of that protection.

"The use of local law enforcement for general deportation reasons, for low-level offenders, is not appropriate," said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck earlier this week. But he added, "We already, when somebody commits a serious violent crime, cooperate to what extent is legal with [the Department of Homeland Security]."

King County Sheriff John Urquhart makes a similar distinction. His deputies aren't allowed to ask people about their immigration status, and he says when they arrest someone for a minor crime, that shouldn't lead to deportation.

"Perhaps he's a shoplifter, stealing baby food to feed his family," Urquhart says. "I don't think we should be involved in turning those people over to Immigration."

But Urquhart adds, "That doesn't mean we can't deal with the true criminals." He gives the example of detectives investigating foreign-born drug dealers. "We want to let ICE know that they may want to take a look at this person, because they're a criminal, and I want them out of this country just as much as Donald Trump does."

It's a distinction the public generally agrees with. But it doesn't sit well with Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"If a sheriff or sheriff's deputy or anyone else is, without a conviction, deciding this is a bad person, and [says], 'We want to find some other means of getting them out of the community and therefore we're going to call ICE,' that's bad policy. In fact, it is arguably unconstitutional policy," Saenz says.

"There should be a strict, strict wall of no cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities," he says.

That kind of wall seems absurd to Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, of Frederick County, Md. He blames that kind of attitude for the fact that millions of "criminal aliens," as he puts it, are still at large in the U.S.

"Our failures to enforce the immigration laws as they are written, I think largely falls back to local law enforcement's failure to cooperate," Jenkins says.

He would like to see more jurisdictions do what his county does. His deputies aren't allowed to ask people about immigration status during contacts on the street, but that changes once a suspect is booked into jail.

"We ask two basic questions of everybody: 'Where were you born?' and 'What country are you a citizen of?' Any answer other than 'the United States of America,' we do an immigration status check," he says. If his deputies get an indication the person is in the country illegally, they hold him for ICE.

Jenkins is a vocal opponent of the "sanctuary city" idea, but he also acknowledges that sanctuary policies vary from place to place. Still, he doesn't think the Trump administration will have trouble identifying which jurisdictions deserve the label.

"I think the line is very clear in the fact that if your county does nothing — nothing — to cooperate, takes no action to cooperate with ICE, I think that by the very fact that you don't do anything you're a sanctuary city."

But if the bar is that low — a complete lack of cooperation with ICE — then the actual list of sanctuary cities may turn out to be quite short.