Feds, states target Southern 'sanctuary cities,' leaving local officials in a bind

Six Southern states have banned "sanctuary city" policies with four others considering similar legislation, creating a difficult environment for local elected officials navigating immigration policy. (Scroll down the page for an interactive version of this map.)

The Trump administration has continued its crackdown on immigration this week, most recently taking aim at so-called "sanctuary cities." In January, President Donald Trump issued an executive order threatening to withhold federal funding from these cities which, to varying degrees, limit their entanglement in federal immigration enforcement to promote local public safety and community trust.

The administration has followed up on Trump's directive, with the Department of Homeland Security recently releasing a list of jurisdictions it said didn't comply with the agency's requests to detain undocumented immigrants in local custody beyond their scheduled release — a tactic some have criticized for flaming unfounded notions that immigrants are criminals or that they increase crime.

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions re-issued the administration's threat of pulling federal funding.

"The Department of Justice will require that jurisdictions seeking or applying for Department of Justice grants to certify compliance with [U.S. Code 1373] as a condition of receiving those awards," Session said, referring to a federal law that prohibits restricting communication between local and federal agencies regarding information about immigration status.

Sessions added, "The Department of Justice will take all lawful steps to claw back any funds awarded to a jurisdiction that willfully violates 1373."

In the South and conservative states across the country, these attacks on sanctuary communities are also coming at the state level, leaving immigrant-friendly local elected officials in the region walking a tightrope, trying to support immigrants without becoming a target of federal or state retribution.

Nationwide, at least 18 states considered policies prohibiting local measures to limit federal immigration enforcement in 2016, and 29 are considering them in 2017. According to a Facing South analysis of statewide sanctuary city bans in the South, six states — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — currently have such laws on the books. Four others — Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Texas — are considering anti-sanctuary city legislation. North Carolina and Tennessee are also considering legislation to make their existing laws stricter, while Georgia added new requirements to its law in 2016.

Of the six states with current sanctuary city prohibitions, four passed their laws prior to sanctuary cities becoming a national issue in 2015, during a period in which laws styled after Arizona's notorious "Show me your papers" SB 1070 swept the region. Georgia and Tennessee passed their bans in 2009. Alabama's and South Carolina's are part of their SB 1070 copycat laws passed in 2011.

For an updated version of this map, click here

A 'sanctuary' or not?

As the national debate around sanctuary cities has become increasingly fraught and political, the term "sanctuary" has largely lost its meaning and has come to be used or rejected by various actors for their own purposes.

Several of the nation's largest cities including New York, Seattle and Chicago are publicly claiming the label as they pledge to continue their policies in defiance of Trump's order. San Francisco has sued the administration over its policy with 35 other cities signing on to the lawsuit. Few are from the South, but Southern localities that have signed on include Austin, Texas, and surrounding Travis County as well as New Orleans.

Travis County has been a high-profile sanctuary community where officials have stood by their policy to not comply with federal "detainer" requests to hold immigrants beyond their scheduled release unless federal officials have a warrant — but that stance has come at a cost. In response, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) withheld $1.5 million in state funding from the county. A federal judge also confirmed as many local immigrant advocates had suspected that federal officials' high level of recent immigration enforcement activity in Austin was retaliation for the county's policy.

Cristina Parker is the immigration programs director of Grassroots Leadership, a group advocating for local sanctuary policies in Austin. She says that while Travis County's policy is significant, it addresses only one aspect of local-federal cooperation and does not shield all undocumented immigrants from deportation, as some sanctuary critics paint it.

"It's very much about political points to them and not about what's actually happening here in Austin or Travis County," Parker told Facing South.

"Nobody wants to be shot at by the General Assembly or the national government withholding funding."

Other local elected leaders are making a point of rejecting the "sanctuary" label so as not to provoke the ire of state and federal officials, even as they try to continue to take a pro-immigrant stance.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) has repeatedly denied that New Orleans is a sanctuary, but state officials including Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) argue that it is and have tried to pass statewide bans on such local policies. New Orleans' policy resulted from federal lawsuits and a consent decree that directs New Orleans police to, among other things, refrain from asking about an individual's immigration status.

"First and foremost, New Orleans is not a sanctuary city and our police department's policy on immigration complies with federal law," Landrieu said, arguing the policy affects police interactions with the community, not communication between local and federal officials. "The NOPD's policy makes New Orleans safer because individuals are more likely to report crime, and victims and witnesses can testify without fear of being questioned about their immigration status."

North Carolina has no sanctuary cities, according to the Immigrant Resource Center's tracking, but a statewide ban on such policies is in place with pending legislation to penalize localities deemed sanctuaries. Consequently, local elected officials are wary that even expressing a friendly tone towards immigrants could make them a target.

"We are welcoming and have many refugees that have come through the system," Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger (D) told a local news station. "But nobody wants to be shot at by the General Assembly or the national government withholding funding. It's hard to talk about and not have state lawmakers come at us."