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Understanding the confusing battle over 'sanctuary cities'

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Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges speaks at an anti-Trump protest
There's no good way of tracking how many places fall under the common definition of sanctuary jurisdictions, but there are at least two such spots in Minnesota: Minneapolis and St. Paul. Here, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges spoke at a protest against President Trump's travel ban on Jan. 31.
Tom Baker for MPR News file

There's a confusing political and legal battle brewing over the Trump administration's crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities that allegedly don't comply with federal immigration law. 

Much debate involves the term sanctuary city, which has no legal definition. 

It means different things to different people, too, and the many sides of the immigration debate often use rhetoric that's misleading. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said this week that he'd revoke and withhold funding from cities that don't comply with the president's order. Cities and counties in Minnesota and across the U.S. are grappling with how to respond.

Some places are suing, calling the move an illegal violation of state's rights. Others are expanding their cooperation with federal agents, assisting in arrests of undocumented immigrants suspected of committing crimes. 

MPR News has compiled this guide to some of the key issues surrounding immigration law and what's at stake.

First off, even the term sanctuary city is misleading

It would be more accurate to use the broader phrase sanctuary jurisdiction, as sanctuary status could apply to a county, city or state, or even a school district or church.

While sanctuaries are often discussed in terms of law, there's no legal definition for them. 

Often, sanctuary jurisdictions restrict law enforcement from inquiring about people's immigration status unless it directly pertains to a case. They may also keep workers from notifying federal officials about who may be undocumented. Some places call those policies "separation ordinances," referring to the separation between local government's duties and those of federal immigration authorities: local cops keep the peace, the feds deal with deportation.

A contentious issue that has emerged is how — and if — jurisdictions should comply with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests to hold suspected deportable immigrants in custody or notify ICE when they're released.

There's no good way of tracking how many places fall under the common definition of sanctuary jurisdictions, but there are at least two such spots in Minnesota: Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Neither of the Twin Cities officially designate themselves sanctuary cities, but they have separation ordinances in place requiring city employees not to solicit immigration status as a prerequisite for receiving services. Both are vowing not to change their relationship with residents because of the executive order.

Many cities with separation ordinances, including the Twin Cities, contend they are not breaking the law and that they're helping preserve overall public safety and protect immigrant populations.

Chris Coleman speaks at the State of the City.
Neither of the Twin Cities officially designate themselves sanctuary cities, but they have separation ordinances in place requiring city employees not to solicit immigration status as a prerequisite for receiving services. Here, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman gave his annual State of the City speech on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

What's new: Sanctuaries are facing financial threats from the Justice Department

Attorney General Sessions has said he'd withhold and possibly revoke billions of dollars in federal grants from places that limit local police's cooperation with immigration authorities. 

He was reiterating points outlined in an executive order Trump issued in January. That order in part relies on a law called 8 U.S.C. 1373, which bars local governments from restricting how they share immigration information with federal authorities.

In a practical sense, this refers to the ICE detainer requests that some jurisdictions are bucking. 

Interpreting this area of law can be tricky, and Sessions has offered few specifics. 

But since there's a lot of money involved, it's causing worry among some Minnesota cities.

"There's concern from a lot of cities simply because there's so much we don't know," said Quinn O'Reilly, an attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities. "It's not clear what you would have to do to violate 1373 or to be deemed a sanctuary jurisdiction."

St. Paul and Minneapolis each have $15 million in grants at stake. The Minneapolis Police Department also receives about $1 million a year from the Department of Justice for several different public-safety programs.

The threat to cut funding is what legal battles could focus on.

Cities suing over the executive order are gearing up for a 10th Amendment fight

The federal government can't coerce local governments into doing its work. That fact is at the core of suits brought by cities including San Francisco and Seattle. Those cities will argue Trump's order violates the Constitution's 10th Amendment by attempting to make local governments enforce federal immigration law. Minneapolis has said it's considering joining the suits. 

The plaintiffs argue that the Department of Justice's threats to withhold federal funding — often significant chunks of cities' budgets — constitutes a threat, coercing local entities to do federal immigration workers' jobs. 

The federal government can try persuading local jurisdictions to act on its behalf, but it's not legal when that persuasion becomes threatening or coercive. 

Trump's executive order focused on public safety, but there's not much data to support that narrative

Some undocumented immigrants have committed heinous crimes. Trump, Sessions and company readily point out whenever immigration comes up.

The idea that the undocumented are a particularly violent bunch is central to the Trump platform on immigration.

But the data don't back that up. Common estimates say undocumented immigrants commit felonies at about half the rate of the naturalized U.S. population. 

MPR News reporter Brandt Williams contributed to this article.