Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Politics & Govt
Published on February 01, 2017
Trump v. San Francisco: The Stakes For Sanctuary Cities, ExplainedPhoto: Steve Rhodes/Flickr

You may have heard that yesterday, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a federal lawsuit against President Trump's administration. But for many San Francisco residents, it may not be entirely clear what's going on. So here's our guide to San Francisco's sanctuary city policy.

What is a sanctuary city?

Although there is no legal definition of the word, a “sanctuary city” is a term used to refer to a municipality (usually a city or a county) that protects undocumented immigrants in the United States from deportation.

This is mainly done by limiting the amount of cooperation between the city and federal immigration authorities. Some sanctuary municipalities refuse to use local tax dollars to enforce federal immigration laws, while others prohibit local officials from asking individuals about their immigration status.

Even if a municipality doesn’t have sanctuary laws on the books, these policies can be practiced unofficially.

How many sanctuary cities are there in the U.S.?

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center estimates that there are at least 39 cities and approximately 364 counties across the country that consider themselves sanctuary jurisdictions—although their policies and practices vary.

In addition to San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Richmond and San Jose are also sanctuary cities.

Why am I hearing about them now?

Last Wednesday, a freshly inaugurated President Trump signed an executive order that would cut off federal funding to any sanctuary city that refuses to comply with federal immigration authorities.

President Trump has been quoted as saying that “sanctuary cities harbor illegal immigrants.”

The order would block all federal grants, except those deemed necessary for law enforcement, to sanctuary cities.

How many undocumented individuals are there living within the U.S.?

Estimates vary, but the most common is that there are 11 million undocumented people in the country.

According to 2014 census data, San Francisco has approximately 44,000 undocumented residents. Of those individuals, roughly 11,000 listed Mexico as their country of origin, and 10,000 listed China as their country of origin.

Why did SF become a sanctuary city?

Proponents of sanctuary cities say that there is evidence that these policies actually make cities like San Francisco safer for their citizens, because both undocumented and documented immigrants are more likely to report crimes and cooperate with the police, without fear of deportation.

SF's sanctuary policies date to 1985, when then-mayor Dianne Feinstein signed a resolution declaring that:

"City Departments shall not discriminate against Salvadorans and Guatemalan refugees because of their immigration status, and shall not jeopardize the safety and welfare of law-abiding refugees by acting in a way that may cause their deportation."

In 1989, San Francisco became an official "City of Refuge," making it the first sanctuary city in the country. The policy (which has been amended) declared that:

"No department, agency, commission, officer or employee of the City and County of San Francisco shall use any City funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law or to gather or disseminate information regarding the immigration status of individuals in the City and County of San Francisco unless such assistance is required by federal or State statute, regulation or court decision."

Why do some people oppose sanctuary cities?

Opponents of San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy say that the lax enforcement of immigration laws means that potentially dangerous people can reside in these cities, ultimately causing harm to residents.

In the past decade, four people have been killed by undocumented immigrants in San Francisco. One of them was Kate Steinle, who was murdered in 2015 on Pier 14 by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who'd been deported several times and also had several felony convictions.

Steinle's family sued the city because the sheriff's department had released Lopez-Sanchez from jail a short time before the shooting, without notifying immigration authorities. However, a federal judge threw out the family's case, saying there was no law requiring the city to disclose Lopez-Sanchez's release date.

Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr

In May, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted to revise the sanctuary city policy. Law enforcement officials in the city can now notify federal immigration authorities of an inmate's release in limited circumstances involving serious felonies.

What does this mean for San Francisco?

Since Mayor Lee—along with the mayors of Oakland, San Jose, and Berkeley—has reaffirmed his commitment to San Francisco's sanctuary status, the city and county stand to lose roughly $1 billion in federal funding. 

However, it doesn’t seem likely that San Francisco will be stripped of all of its federal dollars.

According to Reuters, the top 10 sanctuary cities in the country (San Francisco is number seven) stand to lose a combined $2.27 billion in federal funding. Locally, that could mean cuts to Head Start programs, HUD grants for affordable housing, and transportation funds.

Not every sanctuary city is standing up to the President. Florida’s Miami-Dade County has already said that it will comply with President Trump’s order.

Why is SF suing the Trump administration?

Many in San Francisco—and nationally—are already mobilizing to fight President Trump’s executive order on federal funding for sanctuary cities in court, calling it unconstitutional.

Yesterday, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a federal lawsuit against the new administration, saying that the order exceeds the president's power and violates the Constitution.

“This executive order tries to turn cities and states into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement," Herrera told the Chronicle last week. "That’s against the law. Cities cannot be coerced into becoming the deportation arm of the federal government.”

Yesterday, Herrera called the order both "un-American" and unlawful. Here's what he had to say in a statement:

"The Trump administration falsely believes that sanctuary cities harbor criminals and make communities unsafe. To the contrary, any persons who is booked in San Francisco has their fingerprints sent to the federal government.

If the federal government has a criminal warrant for that person, San Francisco complies with that. Moreover, sanctuary cities have less crime, fewer people in poverty and lower unemployment than other counties."

Photo: duluozcats/Flickr

Will San Francisco comply with Trump's executive order?

It doesn't look like it, especially considering yesterday's lawsuit announcement.

“If and when the federal cuts come, we will be united behind our promises and values,” said Mayor Lee in a statement last week. "We are ready.”

The loss of $1 billion in federal funding would be a significant hit to San Francisco’s $9.6 billion annual budget, but a “best-case scenario” would see the city only lose $10 million in grants from the Department of Homeland Security—money that goes to the city’s emergency preparedness program.

Lee has defended the city’s sanctuary policies, saying that they make the city safer.

“The policy is intended to increase trust and cooperation between local law enforcement and immigrant communities,” Lee said in a statement last week. “It makes it possible for immigrants to access services such as education and health care.”