SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
During the campaign, Donald Trump railed against cities where law enforcement limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Speech in August, he pledged to punish places like that by cutting their federal funding.
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DONALD TRUMP: We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths.
SIMON: But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, keeping that promise will be difficult given that there's no agreement on what the term sanctuary city even means.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This week, officials in liberal cities like Seattle and Chicago were sounding defiant, saying Trump's election wouldn't change their policies on how to handle people who are in the country illegally. Here's Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.
CHARLIE BECK: The use of local law enforcement for general deportation reasons for low-level offenders is not appropriate, and we don't do that.
KASTE: But notice, Beck specifies low-level offenders. When it comes to people who've committed more serious, violent crimes, he says the LAPD does cooperate with the feds. The truth is, jurisdictions with a sanctuary label are sanctuaries only up to a point, and that point varies a lot from place to place.
JOHN URQUHART: There is not a real clear definition of what a sanctuary city is. It's almost a political designation that one side or the other places on a city or, in some cases, a county.
KASTE: That's John Urquhart, the sheriff in King County, which includes Seattle. His department's policy forbids deputies from asking people in the street about their immigration status, and he thinks that's as it should be.
URQUHART: That doesn't mean we can't deal with the true criminals that we come in contact, that we arrest, that we put in jail, that we want to let ICE know they may want to take a look at this person because they're a criminal, and I want them out of the country just as much as Donald Trump does.
KASTE: As an example, he says if his deputies were investigating a drug-runner that they thought was in the country illegally, they should feel free to tip off immigration. And this kind of gray area is common in these liberal jurisdictions, the idea that sanctuary protects the little guy but isn't meant to shield serious criminals. It's a distinction the public tends to agree with, but Thomas Saenz doesn't like it.
THOMAS SAENZ: I think that that's an approach that ignores due process.
KASTE: Saenz is president and general counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He says when police make these distinctions, it opens the door to abuse.
SAENZ: If a sheriff or a sheriff's deputy or anyone else is without, you know, a conviction deciding this is a bad person, and 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.
KASTE: He'd like to see what he calls a strict, strict wall of no cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration authorities. That's an absurd idea to Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County, Md. He says that kind of thinking is why we still have millions of people in this country illegally.
CHUCK JENKINS: Our failures to enforce the immigration laws as they are written, I think, largely it falls by to local law enforcement's failure to cooperate.
KASTE: The thing is, the local's decision whether to cooperate is not always about politics. For instance, some jails no longer hold people at the request of immigration but not because they want to be sanctuaries. It's because they're afraid of being sued for holding people illegally. The Trump administration may have a challenge trying to decide which of these places are true sanctuary cities. But Sheriff Jenkins doesn't think it'll be that hard.
JENKINS: 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 you don't do anything, you're a sanctuary city.
KASTE: But if the bar is that low, doing nothing to cooperate, then the list of places to punish for being sanctuary cities could end up being very short.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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