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Six things to know about 'sanctuary cities'

President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that seeks to bar federal grant funding to so-called "sanctuary cities" that harbor undocumented or "illegal" immigrants.

The threat is being taken seriously in jurisdictions across the country, and the outcry from city mayors and state attorneys general has been immediate. Here's a closer look at the issue:

WHAT IS A 'SANCTUARY CITY'?

The term has no accepted definition under the law, which is part of what may make any federal action against "sanctuary cities" difficult to enforce.

Conservative advocacy groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies believe more than 300 "sanctuary" jurisdictions refuse to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) "detainers" (or jail holds on suspects), or otherwise impede information sharing with federal immigration officials.

In 2007, the U.S. Office of the Inspector General examined seven cities and counties across the country and determined that all of them except San Francisco were notifying ICE in a timely manner about "aliens in custody, accepting detainers from ICE, and promptly notifying ICE of impending releases from local custody." In May 2016, a 16-page memorandum from Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that cooperation had declined. This time around, according to the memo, "all of the jurisdictions we reviewed had ordinances or policies that placed limits on cooperation with ICE in connection with at least one of the three areas assessed in 2007."

"One of the issues is there is no accepted definition of what a sanctuary city is," said professor Virgil Wiebe, a director of clinical education at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

ARE ST. PAUL AND MINNEAPOLIS 'SANCTUARY CITIES'?

That depends upon who you ask. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges don't use that term, and they noted this week that their cities abide by and will continue to abide by federal law when it comes to cooperating with immigration authorities. Both cities have passed "separation ordinances" that restrict city employees -- including police -- from asking about a person's citizenship status before rendering services.

Hodges and Coleman have emphasized that despite the separation ordinances, the two cities work with federal immigration authorities whenever called upon to do so, though city employees make no special effort on a day-to-day basis to determine if someone is in the country legally. Coleman clarified the city's stance in a Nov. 20 guest opinion column in the Pioneer Press. Both mayors have said their cities welcome everyone, regardless of legal status.

In legal cases across the country, immigrants rights groups have pointed to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unlawful searches and seizures. They say without a federal warrant, it's unconstitutional to hold an inmate in a county jail for several days past their release date to be picked up by federal immigration authorities.

WHAT'S THE ROLE OF POLICE?

Coleman said this week that the decision to pass a "separation ordinance" was driven in part by law enforcement, who rely on the general public -- including immigrants of any legal status -- as witnesses and informants to help solve crimes. It's difficult to inspire trust within an immigrant community if you're the same officer locking up families for deportation.

St. Paul police say they're in charge of investigating local crimes, not federal immigration issues. "We have solid partnerships with federal agencies, and our focus is on enforcing state laws and city ordinances," said Steve Linders, a St. Paul police spokesman.

"As far as looking up a person's immigration status after arrest, we do not do that," said Ramsey County Sgt. John Eastham. "No, we do not work with immigration authorities to apprehend undocumented or illegal immigrants. We arrest people for criminal activity, and that's it.

"We release them when it's time for people to be released," Eastham said. "Sometimes the immigration authorities will ask us when someone is going to be released, but we do not hold anyone for them."

HOW MUCH FEDERAL MONEY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?

In its 2017 operating budget of $691 million, the city of St. Paul relies on $14.6 million in federal revenue. About half the money comes from Community Development Block Grants, which are flexible grants that can support a wide range of housing and economic development projects.

St. Paul's 2017 budget relies upon $8.5 million in federal revenue for planning and economic development projects; $2.2 million for policing; $1.4 million for emergency management such as flood control; and $1.1 million for fire safety.

CAN THE PRESIDENT HOLD BACK THESE FUNDS?

Trump's executive order doesn't spell out what kind of federal grant money could be put on hold, and legal critics have questioned whether the president has the authority to withhold grants unrelated to immigration, policing or public safety.

"My short answer would be 'no,' but the courts will have to be the ones to sort it out," Wiebe said. "If you're going to take away funding based on the activity of the city, there has to be some connection between the grant and the activity in question.

"And in those situations, law enforcement are the ones most logically connected to the immigration enforcement issue," he added. Constitutionally, "the funding in question needs to be 'reasonably related' to the federal purpose, and also 'not so significant as to be coercive.' Under the 10th Amendment, there's a concept that basically says the federal government cannot use its funding power to coerce local governments to do something."

Even so, courts have allowed the federal government to trim spending to states and local jurisdictions to encourage certain behavior, as long as it is not an overwhelming amount of their budget.

HOW ARE CHURCHES AND IMMIGRANTS RIGHTS GROUPS RESPONDING?

ISAIAH, a faith-based social justice coalition, is working with a network of "sanctuary churches" that have promised to house immigrants who fear deportation.

Groups that work closely with immigrants, such as the International Institute of Minnesota, are keeping their members aware of the president's executive orders, which also include building a wall at the Mexican border and freezing immigration from some Muslim nations, including Somalia.

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