The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 26, 2017

Blocking funds to sanctuary cities could hurt all Americans

On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order to cut federal funding to cities, counties, and states that do not use local law enforcement agents and resources to enforce federal immigration policies. These jurisdictions have been commonly called “sanctuary cities,” a term that loosely applies to what is a diverse set of places and policies. The executive order provides little clarity on what types of local policies or actions would trigger punitive federal action or which federal funds are at stake. 

But as the media, lawyers, advocates, federal agencies, mayors, and community residents who are committed to protecting the rights of immigrants grapple with what this action means, it is worth asking, is this good policy? Would this advance or stunt progress on crucial national goals that dominated the election cycle, such as improving public safety and stimulating economic growth? And what does the evidence tell us?

Cuts could block opportunities for many Americans

Without knowing the funding streams at risk or the places that will be threatened, it is difficult to estimate the policy’s potential damage to jurisdictions or their residents. But by some estimates and definitions of “sanctuary” policies, the executive order could affect as many as 500 counties, 40 cities, and 7 states. A small fraction of residents in these places are undocumented immigrants.

If we examine just a handful of places at risk, we can glimpse how sweeping the cuts—and how broad their impact—could be. In a recent analysis of federal funding to the nation’s 10 largest cities that have adopted some form of sanctuary policy, Reuters estimated that about $2.27 billion was at risk of being cut, including $238 million for airport improvements, $153 million for HIV prevention programs, and $460 million for Head Start preschool programs (which recent research suggests has long-term positive effects on both children and parents). Smaller cities than those included in the Reuters analysis may be even more at risk, because they may have fewer resources to independently support important health, housing, and education programs subject to broad federal funding cuts under the executive order.

Targeting sanctuary jurisdictions will likely hurt the national economy’s vibrancy and productivity. Of the 10 most economically productive metros in the country, the central counties and cities of seven may no longer be eligible to receive federal funding that supports vital programs, infrastructure improvements, and economic development initiatives.

The executive order threatens to undermine public safety

Contrary to the administration's assertion that the executive order will improve public safety, evidence shows that it will likely have the opposite effect. Promising law enforcement practices include policing models that cultivate trust and collaboration with immigrant communities. Requiring local law enforcement to assume additional responsibilities aimed at identifying, detaining, or deporting undocumented immigrants will divert time and resources away from promoting public safety and preventing violent crimes. 

The executive order also threatens to strain relations between local law enforcement and immigrant communities. In 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing found that “building trust with immigrant communities” is “central to overall public safety.” Independent research backs this up. An analysis by PolicyLink found that 45 percent of Latinos surveyed felt unwilling to contact law enforcement officials when they were victims of crime or to offer information about crimes for fear of being interrogated regarding their immigration status or that of people they knew. If enforced, a hard-line stance requiring local law enforcement to assume the role of enforcers of immigration law is likely to undo much of the progress made across the country on community policing solutions, which have had positive and significant effects on community satisfaction with police and perceptions of police legitimacy within communities.

Local areas have no control over who enters the United States illegally, nor do they have much control over who resides within their jurisdictions. What President Trump has characterized as disregard for the law, local officials see as good policy to focus on more pressing issues in their communities. Plenty of uncertainties remain about the meaning, scope, and impact of President Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities. In the days ahead, it will likely be closely scrutinized, particularly by local leaders whose federal funds are threatened as details become known.

President Donald Trump signs an executive order for border security and immigration enforcement improvements at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. on January 25, 2017. Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP.

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