Could St. Louis become a sanctuary city? We discuss where trend stands across the country

Mar 6, 2017
Originally published on March 7, 2017 5:42 pm

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In January, the term “sanctuary city” came back into the spotlight after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would punish local governments that don't comply with federal immigration enforcement. No cities or counties in St. Louis are currently considered sanctuary areas, but some immigration advocates have called for St. Louis to join the ranks of Denver, Chicago, San Francisco and New York in noncompliance with the feds.

Three candidates for mayor, Antonio French, Tishaura Jones and Lyda Krewson, have all said they support St. Louis becoming a sanctuary city for immigrants.

But what does that mean, exactly? It turns out it’s rather complicated. For starters, although the term “sanctuary city” has been used for thousands of years, its definition is pretty wishy-washy and vague.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh was joined by journalist Alan Greenblatt, a staff writer with Governing Magazine, who has written extensively on this issue. More broadly, he’s reported on the growing battle between cities and the new Trump administration.

Greenblatt also discussed a new trend among several prosecuting attorneys throughout the country, including St. Louis, about their evolving philosophies of justice.

What is a sanctuary city?

“There isn’t any one definition: different cities and counties have different policies,” Greenblatt said. “The basic idea is whether a city, when it imprisons people or the police encounter people, whether it will turn people over to immigration and customs enforcement. Every city cooperates with the federal government when it comes to murderers, serious criminals, but cities that have sanctuary policies in place, if they have someone who comes in for jaywalking charges, what have you, they won’t turn them over to the feds.”

How does a city become a sanctuary city?

Some cities become a “sanctuary city” through formal ordinances. Five states, for example, bar their local governments from cooperating with the federal government in that way. For many other cities, however, they have an informal policy made either through directives to local law enforcement or made directly with federal authorities, Greenblatt said.

Phoenix, for example, is technically barred by the state of Arizona from becoming a sanctuary city but has a “de facto” policy in place, where a non-compliant stance is enacted, but is not written on paper anywhere.

Where are sanctuary cities in the United States?

Because of the loose definition and legal ramifications of being a “sanctuary city” in the United States, it is hard to quantify just how many there are.

At least five states have laws limiting how cities cooperate with federal investigators: California, Oregon, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut, the New York Times reports. Some 633 counties have policies of some sort of limited compliance in regard to immigration enforced, the Times also reported.

According to that reporting, there are no sanctuary counties in Missouri.

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What do cities stand to lose in becoming a sanctuary city?

Greenblatt said that the greatest thing a sanctuary city stands to lose in taking on that designation is the possibility the Trump administration could cut back on federal funding.

“It is unlikely that the federal government could cut off a city from all its federal funds for something like this,” Greenblatt said. “If transportation dollars are coming to a city, the president could not block that money due to a sanctuary city policy. But if there’s a related set of funds, like law enforcement grants or money given to cities to house prisoners, the administration could cut off the city.”

More disturbingly, there are ways the federal government could informally penalize cities through rewarding cities without sanctuary policies as winners of competitive federal grants.

What do cities stand to lose in not becoming a sanctuary city?

On the one hand, cities did not vote for Trump,” Greenblatt said. “Hillary carried metropolitan areas of one million or more, easily, and she lost every other type of locale. Twenty-two of the 25 largest cities have democratic mayors. Their constituents are the people who are most outraged, upset, anxious, depressed that Trump is president.”

That means democratic, big-city mayors are feeling the pressure as “the last bastion of democratic strength” to take a more hardline stance against the President’s policies.

“I think they thought they could navigate it more diplomatically,” Greenblatt said. “Cities are not the ACLU or Sierra Club, they can’t antagonize the government. They have to work with the state and federal government. Cities are dependent on it.”

Could St. Louis become a sanctuary city?

While the will may be there among some future city leaders, St. Louis would face a challenge when it would come to enacting formal sanctuary city policies. Recently, the city has passed both laws protecting abortion rights and increasing minimum wages, which the state legislature has tried to shut down. With a Republican-controlled state House and Senate, it is likely that battle would be done over a formal sanctuary city policy. Informal policies, however? That could be another story.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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