An immigrant stands in front of the U.S. flag during a recent rally in support of Getty

As sanctuary cities set up their defenses against the latest round of attacks from the White House, there are still a lot of questions as to what kind of retaliation the Trump administration can take against cities that offer safe harbor to undocumented immigrants.


This week Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised to cut off billions in Justice Department grant money to cities that don’t comply with the current administration’s hardline approach to immigration enforcement. Specifically, he said cities, towns and counties that don’t heed federal requests to detain undocumented immigrants who should otherwise be free to go, would lose out.


He’s even keeping a list.


By the dozens, cities that espouse sanctuary policies have promised to fight back, insisting that they aren’t breaking any laws.


What does “sanctuary cities” mean?

There is no legal definition for the term “sanctuary city.” Rather, the term describes a policy or set of policies that provides safe harbor from federal immigration law to undocumented immigrants.

Sanctuary policies vary greatly from city to city, but the common thread is that policies dictate the conditions under which local law enforcement will handle requests for assistance from immigration authorities.

Often, local law enforcement will not detain undocumented immigrants solely on the basis of their immigration status, unless they are wanted on federal warrants or have a history of serious crimes.

Are sanctuary cities legal?

In short, yes.

The American Civil Liberties Union says there are no federal laws that mandate local law enforcement to comply with federal immigration policy, and proponents of sanctuary policies often point to the 10th Amendment, which has widely been interpreted as protecting state and local law enforcement agencies from being “commandeered” by the federal government to enforce federal law — such as immigration law.

Why are there sanctuary cities?

Sanctuary cities have a long tradition in modern society, but mostly they were born out of perceived inherent injustices in federal immigration laws.

In the 1980s a wave a sanctuary city policies cropped up across the country, aimed at protecting immigrants fleeing violence in Central America.

Other policies were enacted to protect cities from the problems that might stem from detaining people without adequate authority.

Many communities with sanctuary policies say it fosters a culture of trust between the public and the police. Without fear of deportation, undocumented immigrants can interact with the police and communities become safer. This is a notion backed up by many studies.

How many sanctuary cities are there?

Since there is no legal definition for a “sanctuary city,” it’s hard to quantify exactly how many exist.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is working to put a number one it, though. Just last week it published the first of what will become weekly reports on cities and towns that are “uncooperative” with federal deportation efforts.

There are more than 100 municipalities named in the ICE report, though some are challenging their inclusion.

A list maintained by the Ohio Jobs and Justice Political Action Committee identifies 400 communities with sanctuary policies.