Under the current administration, the term “sanctuary city” has led many headlines concerning immigration policies and federal funding concerns. In fact, five days after taking office, President Trump signed an executive order aimed at blocking federal funding to sanctuary cities.  But to this day, most people still don’t understand what a sanctuary city truly is and how they fit into the bigger picture of U.S. immigration enforcement.

There is no universal definition for a sanctuary city. In fact, most sanctuary jurisdictions can be better defined as “sanctuary counties.”  Nevertheless, it can be best explained as a broad term applied to a jurisdiction exercising policies aimed at limiting the cooperation of local criminal enforcement offices with federal immigration enforcement. These informal policies range, but most refuse to turn over undocumented immigrants from local jails to ICE except under very specific conditions or prevent local police officers from asking about immigration status.  For example, when someone is arrested for a DUI, he/she may be detained for the night and released the next day.  In counties without sanctuary policies, if this person was an undocumented immigrant, federal authorities would be alerted and may ask the local officials to hold this person in detention for a time while they transfer them into immigration custody and possibly deport them due to their unlawful status. This may be true without regard for how minimal the offense.

The “Sanctuary Movement” began in the 1980s and was led by churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions.  The movement stemmed from the belief that religious organizations should provide refuge for all those in need, including those who committed crimes.  But slowly churches found the groups they harbored increasingly included Latino refugees fleeing civil unrest, and not criminals. The movement spread, and many counties through the U.S. joined in solidarity.  As MSNBC writer Amanda Sakuma commented in her article regarding the sanctuary movement, “early sanctuary leaders might find it ironic that law enforcement would take up the cause decades later.”

Law enforcement officials have stated that they do not want to undertake the extra burden of enforcing immigration, and they worry that honoring ICE detainer requirements could scare people away from reporting crimes.  Additionally, they worry it would break down community relations and disrupt services.  Opponents of sanctuary cities accuse them of allowing criminals to live peacefully while committing crimes on U.S. soil that could have otherwise been avoided if they had just been deported. They cite these cities as counterproductive to their goal of enforcing immigration laws and cracking down of the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

Federal officials do at times rely on local law enforcement to help enforce federal immigration laws, but there exists no law that forces authorities to detain undocumented immigrants due to a federal request. In fact, complying with these requests is voluntary according to federal courts nationwide.

To be clear, there are no sanctuary policies that prevent law enforcement officers from pursuing immigrants or any crimes they have committed. The collective goal of these informal sanctuary policies is to protect undocumented immigrants who are not involved in criminal activity from being detained or deported by ICE.

Why should you care? Just days after taking office, President Trump signed an expansive executive order that threatened to cut billions in federal funds from sanctuary cities.  President Trump’s executive order intended to “strip federal grant money from the sanctuary states and cities that harbor undocumented immigrants,” according to press secretary Sean Spicer.  However, a ruling from U.S. District Judge William Orrick III in San Francisco on April 25, 2017 said that President Trump’s order targeted broad categories of federal funding for sanctuary governments and that plaintiffs challenging the order were likely to succeed in proving it unconstitutional.  This decision will block Trump’s order for now while the case makes its way through the court system.  Other lawsuits are also pending in Seattle; two Massachusetts cities, Lawrence and Chelsea; and a third San Francisco Bay Area, the city of Richmond. In response, multiple counties have backed away from sanctuary-type policies over the prospect of losing millions in essential funding, while others have declared sanctuary-style non-compliance with a new fervor.