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Mapping Trump's Coming War on Immigrant Sanctuary Cities

The president-elect's promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants has set up a showdown with the cities that have pledged to protect them.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

Donald Trump has promised a war on America’s “sanctuary cities,” threatening to cut off all federal dollars to communities "that refuse to cooperate” with federal authorities in immigration enforcement. As my colleague Natalie Delgadillo reported, several big-city mayors have already declared they will continue to resist using local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law.

Given the overwhelming strength of the GOP at federal and state levels of government, these sanctuary jurisdictions may become the major battleground in the political struggle over the president-elect’s mass deportation plan. Currently, many sanctuary communities bypass involvement in Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation efforts by choosing to release undocumented immigrants from police custody, rather than detaining them beyond their release date without warrant for transfer to immigration authorities. The continuation or expansion of such local practices could seriously hinder Trump’s plans to deport all undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

To understand where the Trump administration may target localities for refusing to cooperate with ICE, CityLab mapped all counties that ICE classifies as having policies or legislation that “limits or prohibits cooperation with ICE,” based on data released to The Texas Tribune in January. In addition to this sanctuary county data, colored in blue, we underlaid 2014 state-level estimates of undocumented immigrant populations from Pew, so viewers can pinpoint potential disparities between where undocumented immigrants live and where policies exist that, to drastically varying degrees, forego some measure of cooperation with ICE.

The interactive map also includes information on sanctuary cities and states, based on city and state data collected by the Center for Immigration Studies (Update: CIS pointed CityLab that a more recent version of the cities and states they consider to be sanctuaries). Clicking on the cities, counties, and states below, viewers can see the number of individuals local authorities have declined to detain for ICE, undocumented immigrant population estimates, and specifics about local sanctuary policies for most counties and cities.

As the map makes clear, California is the state most covered by sanctuary policies. Many of its counties also feature some of the largest number of declined ICE detainer requests over January 2014 to September 30, 2015. Santa Clara and Los Angeles county, for example, topped the list with 1,856 and 1,492 declined ICE detainers respectively.

In contrast, other border states like Texas and Arizona, which also have large undocumented populations, have almost no jurisdictions that ICE considers to be in limited cooperation with ICE. Dallas County is Texas’ sole county classified as anti-cooperative by ICE, and it had only two declined detainer requests over that period of time. (Most locals do not consider Dallas to be a sanctuary city because the county now effectively cooperates with all ICE detainer requests.)

Jonathan Blazer, an ACLU policy counsel focused on immigration, points out that the places ICE counts as non-cooperative do not seem to include many jurisdictions with limited detainer policies, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast. (A more comprehensive map of such jurisdictions can be found at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center). Still, even accepting a broader geography of “sanctuary” or “limited detainer” jurisdictions in America, Blazer notes that Arizona and Texas have far fewer sanctuary protections than one might expect given their large undocumented populations. He attributes that largely to the state’s GOP lawmakers and conservative courts. While some jurisdictions in the Midwest and Northeast enact limited detainer policies for fear of being sued for holding people without a probable cause warrant, Blazer says that’s not a factor in Texas and Arizona. “In Texas, the 5th Circuit court is viewed as one of the least hospitable cases to bring a claim like that, so there isn’t an imminent fear that jurisdictions could be sued. And similarly to Arizona, you’ve got a governor and attorney general that have threatened to defund sanctuary cities and have tried to run anti-sanctuary state laws numerous times in the last five years.”

Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has backed such anti-sanctuary bills in Arizona and Texas,
argues that California has more sanctuary jurisdictions than Texas and Arizona because demographic shifts have made it necessary for politicians there to cater to immigrant communities. ”Sanctuary communities tend to pop up in areas after they pass the ‘tipping point’ due to uncontrolled, mass immigration,” says Ray in an email. “Eventually, local politicians start seeing the illegal immigrants as their primary constituents, and their policy ideas flow from that mindset. First it’s the sanctuary city, and then it’s changes to election laws that allow illegal aliens to vote." (Courts have never allowed undocumented people to vote, but the counting of undocumented residents in the drawing of legislative districts did become a hot-button issue this year and was recently affirmed by the Supreme Court.)

Brianna Brown, deputy director of the Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for immigrants rights, attributes aggressive state action in Texas and Arizona against sanctuary cities mainly to politically expedient anti-immigrant sentiments. “The fear of the ‘brown other’ is keeping these people in office,” says Brown, citing an anti-sanctuary bill expected to be a centerpiece of the state legislature’s upcoming session. “We have extremely gerrymandered state house and senate races… That all comes from really deep xenophobic and racist attitudes that have long been part of our history.”

Some of Texas’ biggest urban counties, however, are becoming increasingly Democratic. Travis County, where Austin is located, for example, recently voted in a sheriff who ran on a platform of making the city Texas’ first real sanctuary site. Such local efforts could pose serious problems for the president-elect’s mass deportation promise.

Trump could increase deportations to a certain extent without confronting sanctuary cities, but currently an estimated 5.9 million undocumented immigrants, 53% of the overall undocumented population, live in jurisdictions, with sanctuary policies —many of which were adopted in response to President Obama’s record-breaking mass deportation efforts, the Priority Enforcement Program. In recent years, ICE has reportedly convinced 17 of the 25 jurisdictions with the highest number of declined detainers under the previous Secure Communities program to cooperate with immigration authorities.

According to Blazer, chipping away sanctuary jurisdictions will be essential to ensure that Trump’s immigration authorities have enough personnel to carry out mass deportations. “He and others who support mass deportation view states and localities as force multipliers for ICE,” says Blazer. “The first question that comes to mind when you are talk about deporting two to three million people is: Who are the bodies that are going to do that?”

Republican control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, however, could force many jurisdictions to choose between dramatically shrunken budgets and cooperating with immigration enforcement. “Sanctuary policies are a clear violation of federal law, so there are many tools that will be immediately available to President-elect Trump,” says Ray. “One of most effective is the power of purse strings. The federal government could immediately withhold all federal highway funds from states that allow sanctuary cities.”

Last year saw a glimpse of what such attempts could look like when Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) introduced a bill that would have cut off law enforcement funding and community development grants to jurisdictions that decline ICE immigrant detainer requests. Senate Democrats blocked the bill from reaching the floor.

Blazer argues such cuts to local law enforcement, even if passed, could not be enacted without serious legal challenges. “Trump can’t just make up some new rule. People are going to be pushing them to justify why they view it as permissible to cut off funding to the law enforcement agencies that have these policies,” he says. “Once the rubber really hits the road, we’ll see which states and localities sue the federal government to get courts to enjoin them from cutting off funding.”

About the Author

  • George Joseph
    George Joseph is an editorial fellow at CityLab, originally from Denton, Texas. He covers schools, policing, and surveillance.