How 'sanctuary cities' are reacting to Trump's crackdown on undocumented immigrants

Miami-Dade may have surrendered, but a group of "sanctuary cities" is banding together to resist U.S. President Donald Trump's crackdown on undocumented immigrants — even if it means losing millions of dollars in federal grants.

'What's at stake goes to the core of our American values,' Massachusetts mayor says

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that threatens to withdraw federal funding from jurisdictions that don't comply with federal immigration enforcement laws. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Miami-Dade may have surrendered, but a group of "sanctuary cities" is banding together to resist U.S. President Donald Trump's crackdown on undocumented immigrants — even if it means losing millions of dollars in federal grants.

The fight is about more than just money, say the mayors of cities like San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, which protect undocumented immigrants from deportation either informally or as a matter of policy.

"What's at stake goes to the core of our American values of equality and decency," said Joe Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville, a city just three kilometres northwest of Boston that adopted official sanctuary status in 1987.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone greets elders during a parade in the Massachusetts city, which has been a sanctuary city since 1987. (City of Somerville)

About 400 jurisdictions across America have sanctuary policies, which are designed to limit co-operation with federal immigration officials and allow for the safe harbour of undocumented immigrants. Sanctuary ordinances might ban police from helping federal officers with immigration status checks, for example.

Trump issued an executive order on Wednesday to pull millions of dollars in grants from local governments that fail to comply with federal immigration enforcement laws.

Curtatone says Somerville risks losing as much as $12 million in annual funds — money that pays for programs for "vulnerable populations" such as seniors and veterans, free school lunch programs and homeless initiatives.

Trump signs two executive orders during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security. The orders jump-start the construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall and end federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"It would sting. It would hurt us," Curtatone said. "We're talking about feeding our schoolchildren, providing health and education programs, public safety, and helping veterans and seniors."

A Reuters analysis of federal grants awarded to the nation's 10 largest county and city governments estimates $2.27 billion in annual funds could be stripped if each jurisdiction defies Trump and he makes good on his threat.

On Thursday, Miami-Dade County became one of the first to cave after being declared "a sanctuary" by the Justice Department. In a memo, the south Florida county's mayor, Carlos Gimenez, ordered jails to "fully co-operate" with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention requests.

Julian Gomez, a 24-year-old undocumented immigrant who has lived most of his life in Miami, was outraged. He came to America with his parents when he was two years old, but he became undocumented as a toddler in Miami after his family received poor advice from immigration lawyers and he overstayed his visa.

Julian Gomez, third from left, with his parents, sisters and brothers-in-law, is an undocumented immigrant born in Argentina. The 24-year-old receives Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protects him from deportation temporarily, but he worries about other undocumented immigrants who are not protected. (Julian Gomez)

"I'm angry and disappointed by Mayor Gimenez's lack of backbone," Gomez said from Bethesda, Ma., where the Argentina-born activist now lives. "Miami, that city, my hometown, was built by immigrants. That city thrives on immigrants, both those that live there and travel through there."

Gomez, a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., became a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last year, permitting him to stay for two years without risk of being deported because he came to the U.S. as a child. He pays fees to receive temporary work authorization.

"I'm more worried about people who might lose their DACA protection. I'm worried about those people who have no protection at all," he said.

In Somerville, Mayor Curtatone was reluctant to comment on the decisions of other cities.

"I can only tell you that Somerville will not waver, and we'll stand united with over 300 cities and towns and counties and states."

Groups advocating for the reduction of immigration levels argue public safety is best served through compliance with federal immigration authorities.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee on Wednesday reassured residents that San Francisco will remain a sanctuary city. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy at the Centre for Immigration Studies, a group pushing for fewer immigrants and greater restrictions on who can enter the U.S., told the Washington Post that immigration enforcement must be a federal responsibility because "you cannot have 3,000 different policies, it's chaos."

In a debate last month in Washington, she said ICE agents depend on local police to help identify "which illegal aliens are causing the problems. And it turns out that that's who the sanctuaries end up protecting — the criminal aliens."

In the coming weeks, more mayors are expected to make public pronouncements to clarify their policies.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says undocumented immigrants can stay at City Hall. (Scott Audette/Reuters)

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh offered up City Hall "as a last resort" to shelter undocumented immigrants who may feel threatened by Trump's policies.

"If people want to live here, they'll live here," Walsh said Thursday.

"They can use my office. They can use any office in this building."

In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee also delivered some reassurance, announcing Wednesday that the city "is still a sanctuary."

But Pedro Figueroa-Zarceno, 32, doesn't need to imagine what San Francisco would be like if it wasn't a sanctuary city.

He lived through it in 2015, when he went to the police to report his car had been stolen and wound up handcuffed by federal immigration officers.

Pedro Figueroa-Zarceno, an undocumented immigrant who fled violence in El Salvador, was arrested in 2015 after reporting to the police that his car was stolen. He's suing the City of San Francisco for allegedly breaching its own sanctuary policy when he was handed over to federal immigration authorities. (Facebook)

Figueroa-Zarceno, who'd fled violence in El Salvador more than a decade ago, was detained for two months in immigration limbo but was not deported.

He's suing the City of San Francisco for turning him in to federal officers, an alleged breach of the city's sanctuary laws.

City supervisor John Avalos was critical of the police's handling of the situation, in part because one of the purposes of the sanctuary ordinances is to put undocumented immigrants at ease about reporting crimes to police. 

"As the sanctuary policy is politicized by what's happening on a national level," Avalos said, it has become more important to "protect it and make it stronger, and make sure that people like Pedro do not get impacted."