Mayor Ed Murray says Seattle will remain what some call a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, despite President-elect Donald Trump’s threats. We answer some questions about the issue.

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Seattle will remain a so-called sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray insisted this week, despite President-elect Donald Trump promising to punish such cities by blocking their federal funding.

That may sound straightforward. But Trump’s vow and its impact on Seattle are unclear, partly because the politicized term “sanctuary city” has no official definition.

We took a closer look at the issue and why both Seattle and King County are part of the “sanctuary cities” conversation.

Q: What do people mean when they use the term? Are undocumented immigrants truly safe from deportation in sanctuary cities?

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A: Because “sanctuary city” isn’t a legal term, interpretations vary. Broadly, people use it to describe cities with policies and practices that limit local involvement in immigration enforcement. Narrowly, people sometimes use it to describe cities that don’t cooperate with immigration agents, or reject federal requests to detain undocumented immigrants.

“It all turns on the definition. ‘Sanctuary city’ means different things to different people,” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said.

Sanctuary-city policies don’t stop local authorities from arresting and prosecuting undocumented immigrants for non-immigration crimes.

And undocumented immigrants aren’t truly safe from deportation in sanctuary cities. Even when cities can sit on the sidelines, federal agents can carry out their work.

“They (federal agents) can arrest people in Seattle and any other so-called sanctuary city. But we’re not going to have Seattle police out there arresting people for immigration violations,” said Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “The whole notion is that we don’t use local resources.”

 

Q: What’s the history of sanctuary cities?

A: In the 1980s, churches across the country took part in a sanctuary movement by opening their doors to people fleeing war and persecution in Central America.

The churches shield the immigrants, whom the federal government was refusing to classify as political refugees eligible for asylum. Some cities adopted related policies.

In the 2000s, as the federal government stepped up immigration enforcement and sought to further involve local jurisdictions, many cities pushed back.

 

Q: Who talks about sanctuary cities and what do they say?

A: Trump and other proponents of getting tougher on immigration talk about cracking down on sanctuary cities, arguing they allow people who should be deported to go free and commit crimes.

“Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars,” Trump said in a September speech.

Supporters of limits on local involvement in immigration enforcement say the policies and practices make communities safer because undocumented immigrants and their relatives are less afraid to share information with police.

Some supporters also argue cities lack the resources and power to carry out immigration enforcement.

For people like Trump, the term “sanctuary city” is pejorative, and some supporters dislike it. But other supporters embrace the term.

 

Q: Why is Seattle part of the sanctuary-cities conversation?

A: Murray considers Seattle a sanctuary city because of an ordinance passed in 2003.

Unless otherwise required by law or court order, the ordinance bars city employees from inquiring about a person’s immigration status.

Police officers are exempted when they have reasonable suspicion to believe that the person has been previously deported and has committed a felony.

The Seattle Police Department manual tells officers not to ask for or act on a person’s immigration status.

In 2010, to avoid triggering deportations, Seattle prosecutors began asking for criminal sentences of no longer than 364 days. The Legislature made that practice state law in 2011.

 

Q: How does Seattle’s approach compare to other cities, such as San Francisco?

A: A 1989 ordinance also prohibits San Francisco employees from inquiring about status and more broadly bans cooperation with immigration enforcement, except when required by federal or state law or a warrant and in felony cases.

Under an additional ordinance passed in 2013, San Francisco no longer honors federal requests to hold immigrants, except in some cases involving people charged with violent felonies.

 

Q: Why is San Francisco at the center of the sanctuary-cities conversation?

A: A woman was fatally shot in San Francisco last year by a Mexican immigrant with a record of felonies and deportations — after he had been released by local authorities.

Local and federal authorities disagreed about why the man had gone free. The Republican-led U.S. House voted to withhold some funding from jurisdictions shielding undocumented immigrants. Democrats in the U.S. Senate blocked a similar bill.

 

Q: What about King County?

A: San Francisco is both a city and a county, but Seattle sits inside King County.

The King County Sheriff’s Office manual has long included a “don’t-ask” provision for immigration status. The county adopted that and related policies as law in 2009.

“My job is to keep the community safe and respect the rights of undocumented people,” Sheriff John Urquhart said. “If someone is afraid that they’re going to get deported, they’re not going to talk. We need good witnesses to solve crimes.”

In 2013, the county limited its immigration holds to people previously convicted of serious crimes. And in 2014, it added criminal warrants as a requirement.

Seattle doesn’t get hold requests because there’s no city jail. People booked by Seattle police go to the county’s jail.

 

Q: Can Trump end sanctuary policies? Can he block funding to Seattle based on how the city treats undocumented immigrants? And if so, what funding?

A: U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, says Trump may have trouble slashing all the tens of millions of dollars in federal grants that flow to Seattle annually.

The next president will likely encounter legal challenges if he tries to force cities to do more on immigration, Barón added.

“There’s not a lot that he can do,” Smith said. “He can obviously threaten to cut funding, but my staff has told me he could probably only cut funding for immigration.”

Smith added, “For an incoming president to make this a priority is completely ridiculous.”