WASHINGTON, D.C. — While cities such as New York and San Francisco embraced the title of “sanctuary cities” following President Donald Trump’s executive order last week to cut the federal funding they receive, other counties and towns are pushing back and say the label does not fit them.
Leaders in Aurora, Colo., Buffalo, and Denver all rejected accusations that their cities qualify as “sanctuary cities,” despite the fact that their names appear on many widely circulated lists of such jurisdictions.
Buffalo’s Mayor offered an alternative name for the county’s immigration policy to the Buffalo News on Sunday, saying Buffalo is a “refugee resettlement city.”
Mayor Byron Brown brought to task a specific phrase in Trump’s executive order that defines “sanctuary cities” as those having adopted policies “protecting undocumented immigrants by not prosecuting them for violating federal immigration laws in the country in which they’re now living illegally.”
“We don’t think the president’s executive order applies,” Brown said. “We are not trying to facilitate illegal immigration. We are trying to support people who have come here legally, make sure they are successfully transitioned, and can be productive members of society.”
The mayor in Aurora also fought back against the city showing up on a list compiled by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which was mapped by the New York Times in September and includes Aurora among 39 sanctuary cities.
“After initial review of the President’s Executive Order regarding immigration enforcement, Aurora is confident it is not a sanctuary city. We are complying with federal immigration laws and we do not obstruct Immigration and Customs Enforcement in their efforts to enforce these laws,” Mayor Steve Hogan said in a statement.
The statement comes despite a re-iteration by Aurora County’s police chief last November that the city would not detain people based solely on their immigration status.
There is no unified or legal definition for “sanctuary city,” which is why the label is frequently challenged and debated. The loosely defined term is often used to describe cities or jurisdictions that do not completely abide by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directives — such as an order to hold undocumented immigrants in jails until deportation proceedings can begin.
While some cities do openly embrace the title, others find themselves falling into the category for a number of reasons, such as the fact that they might direct their law enforcement officials to not ask people about their immigration status, or they might issue drivers licenses to known illegal immigrants.
Cities such as Denver and Buffalo fall into this latter category. While the counties themselves have not enacted a “sanctuary city law,” they also don’t completely work with ICE on all of its requests. For example, there is no law on Buffalo’s books requiring police to verify immigration status. In Denver, officials believe it to be unconstitutional to hold any person considered to be an illegal citizen without a warrant for their arrest.
“We’re not a sanctuary city,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, in a statement. “We will value residents of this city. We won’t take any unlawful or unconstitutional acts against residents of the city of Denver, and it is our goal to make sure that people in this city feel safe and know that this is a city that is open, welcoming and inclusive.”
Many organizations that compile lists of the cities or counties use a list released by ICE in 2016. Others refer to a Department of Justice Sanctuary City report from May. The Center for Immigration Studies — a conservative group that is in favor of limiting immigration — has one of the highest number of places listed, mapping more than 300 “sanctuary jurisdictions.” The group gets most of its data from the recent ICE list, but also updates it based on its own research.
The most recent list by the ILRC, a left-leaning immigrant rights group, maps sanctuary counties instead of cities. The group maintains that counties are the primary jurisdictions where decisions about engagement with ICE are made. They use a seven-part rubric to reflect the many nuances at play when defining what a sanctuary is. ILRC only lists two counties as having the strongest protections for illegal immigrants and 17 counties are on the other end of the spectrum as “going out of the way to spend local resources on immigration enforcement.” Ninety-seven counties have formal contracts with ICE to detain immigrants.
While it may seem the jurisdictions denying the sanctuary label are simply arguing semantics, being included on the White House’s yet-to-be-released final list of sanctuary cities could mean big financial repercussions for those relying on millions in federal funding.
Instead of arguing the definition of “sanctuary city,” the mayor of Miami-Dade, Fla., directed the jail there last Thursday to change course and honor detainer requests from ICE. The decision reversed a 2013 county policy that for years refused to detain illegal immigrants unless federal immigration services at first promised to reimburse the costs fully. Last year the county declined to hold 100 immigrants wanted by the feds due to a likely cost of $52,000. But keeping that policy in place could risk the county losing $355 million in federal funding in 2017, a gamble that apparently is too high for Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
“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. “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.”