The financial toll of challenging Trump on sanctuary cities is still unknown. But the costs of compliance—in terms of security and impact on immigrant communities—are quite clear.
In a political climate such as this one, full of panicked responses to as-yet unrealized threats, history can offer guidance. The Los Angeles of 1979, particularly, has lessons to impart: That’s when the Los Angeles Police Department created Special Order 40, an internal policy that prevented law enforcement agents from asking about a person’s immigration status and barred them from arresting anyone for having entered the country illegally.
Special Order 40 was a product of its times: The city was experiencing a surge in crime and gang activity (both of which have greatly diminished since, although some would have you believe differently). “We had a lot of illegals who had been victims of crimes, and we wanted to help them,” recalled Daryl Gates, LAPD chief from 1978 to 1992, in the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “For one thing, it would help cooperation, and two, I didn’t want my guys asking every brown-faced person if they were citizens.”
That mandate led to the modern concept of the “sanctuary city” which President Donald Trump targeted this week in an executive order focused on immigration. The order explicitly blocks federal funds from cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities: “The Attorney General and the Secretary … to the extent consistent with the law, shall ensure that jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply … are not eligible to receive federal grants,”
Among the first sanctuaries to accept Trump’s measure was Miami-Dade County. Carlos Gimenez, Miami’s Republican mayor, ordered his Department of Corrections to comply with any detention request they might receive from the Department of Homeland Security. “I want to make sure we don’t put in jeopardy the millions of funds we get from the federal government for a $52,000 issue,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald, referring to the costs of complying with ICE detainers for 100 individuals last year. (“Detainers” are written requests to hold an immigrant for up to 48 hours after their intended release date, ostensibly giving ICE time to pick them up and detain them.) “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be arresting more people. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be enforcing any immigration laws.”
Miami-Dade had, for a while, been in limbo on this issue. Despite the fact that it was on an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement list of sanctuary cities, the county didn’t accept or use the term to refer to itself. “Before [when we had a detainer request], we asked [ICE] to reimburse us for the costs and we weren’t waiting 48 hours [before letting people go],” said Mike Hernandez, spokesman for Gimenez, at a press conference Friday. “Now, with this Executive Order from Mayor Gimenez, we are waiting the 48 hours and the federal government has the responsibility to come and get that person in our custody.”
While other cities with large immigrant populations, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, openly declared themselves sanctuary cities, Gimenez justified the city’s limited cooperation with ICE by citing the costs associated with holding undocumented persons for longer periods and then having to wait for ICE to pick up the tab. For now, according to the mayor’s spokesman, police will only comply with this specific part of the executive order. In other words, they won’t detain people themselves solely because of migratory status, as the executive order “empowers” state and local police to do.
Will Gimenez’ strategy pay off for Miami? When sanctuary city leaders bow to defunding threats from the federal government, Ali Noorani, the Executive Director of National Forum on Immigration, says that they should consider the effect this will have on city security—the same concern Daryl Gates identified in 1979 when he created Special Order 40. “From a security perspective, it’s a smart practice to have the trust of the whole community,” says Noorani. “The police on the corner have to have the trust of the immigrants in the community they patrol.”
That was the thrust of the conversation Noorani had with a police leaders at a conference in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. “We really feel that when we have immigrants or immigrant families who live in fear of deportation, they’re going to be less likely to report crimes or even come forward as witnesses to crimes,” said Chris Magnus, the Chief of Police in Tucson, Arizona, during the conference.
Hernández, Miami-Dade’s spokesperson, tried to clarify at the press conference that undocumented immigrants should not have to fear reporting crimes or testifying as witnesses. But that guarantee is unlikely to diminish the fear this community feels when interacting with authorities. This is particularly true because of the structure of policing in Latin America, where most countries have national police forces as opposed to the split of federal, state, and local forces you see in the US.
The viability of Trump’s threat to block federal funds is also unclear. CityLab has written before about how difficult it is to tell exactly how much money would be at risk in each city; the vague language of the order does little to clarify matters. Advocates such as Noorani are skeptical that this threat could be carried out. “The Trump administration’s ability to block federal funds to cities with an executive order is very limited,” he says. “And it will be litigated.”
But beyond this, there is a political and moral component to take into consideration. As my colleague Lorena Arroyo at Univision explained last month, many people are struck by the fact that Miami-Dade would resist being identified as an immigrant sanctuary, despite the fact that around half of its population is foreign born. But according to Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science at Florida International University, there’s little affinity between the undocumented population in Miami and the city’s political leadership. “They [the local political elite] are generally older Cuban men who generally identify as Republicans,” he says. Up until now, the number of undocumented Cubans in the U.S. has been incredibly low, due to asylum laws. The recent end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy—which gave asylum to Cubans that touched American soil—could change that, putting some Cuban immigrants in the same dire situation as others.
But even if that’s true, it matters little to the people who protested Gimenez’s measure this Friday in front of his Miami office.
“This [sanctuary city] policy was created to protect the immigrant community from a federal agency that was out of control, using local police as a network for deporting immigrants and separating families,” says Lis-marie Alvarado, of the American Friends Service Committee. “This was never about money. This was about protecting families.”