After Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election in November 2016, mayors of so-called “sanctuary cities” across the United States braced for changes to federal immigration policy by resolving to shield undocumented workers in their cities from deportation authorities. The number of sanctuary cities in the United States has skyrocketed to over 340 over the past decade, and the rise of these cities has sparked contentious debates over the role of local government in enforcing federal law.

Proponents of sanctuary cities argue that these cities simply promote basic human rights. Presently, cities are mandated to hand over custody of all undocumented individuals that they detain to federal authorities, even in cases of minor incidents such as traffic violations. Advocates disavow this policy because they claim it splits families and jettisons otherwise productive members of society. Furthermore, they state that the stringent mandate is counterproductive because it forces authorities to utilize their limited resources on processing nonthreatening individuals.

However, the critics of these sanctuary cities fundamentally disagree. By designating cities as “sanctuaries” from immigration law, they argue, these mayors simply promote the additional influx of illegal immigrants into the United States. Furthermore, they state that these cities undermine the authority of the federal government, opening a slippery slope through which cities can defy federal authorities on other topic matters in the future.

The Obama administration turned a blind eye to these sanctuary cities over the past eight years. However, this certainly will not be the case under President Trump, who has promised to cut off federal funding for all cities and institutions that defy immigration authorities. “Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars. None,” said Trump during a speech in Phoenix, Arizona.

Major cities are already pushing back, with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney stating “We will remain a sanctuary city, even if Donald Trump is our president.” The mayors of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles all echoed similar sentiments.

These mayors understand that the danger of losing federal money is very real. For instance, in 2015, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill (dubbed the “Donald Trump Act” ) that would cut off funding for sanctuary cities in light of Kate Steinle’s murder by an illegal immigrant.  Although this measure was eventually defeated in the Senate and promised a veto by Obama, the GOP—which holds majorities in every branch of government for at least the next two years—elucidated its unfavorable stance on sanctuary cities. Under Trump, the GOP can implement this policy to eliminate sanctuary cities without facing major roadblocks.

The outlook for these sanctuary cities is catastrophic if they indeed lose federal funding. New York City, for instance, stands to lose over $10.4 billion, a figure which makes up 15 percent of the city’s annual budget. Since much of this federal money pays into social and children’s health services, everyday citizens would feel the crushing impacts of anti-sanctuary city legislation immediately. If the federal government withholds funding from sanctuary cities for an extended period and social services suffer, mayors like New York’s Bill de Blasio and their respective parties may face intense political fallout.

This pressure felt by the sanctuary cities has also extended to universities that may possess information about the legal status of its students. If Trump implements a similar standard for schools that shield students from federal immigration authorities, many institutions stand to lose millions in federal research grants—in fiscal year 2014, Harvard received $608 million in such grants. These grants from institutions like the National Institutes of Health allow professors to open their own laboratories and hire graduate students or technicians. A significant budget cut would prevent daily tasks for thousands of researchers and halt progress on all ongoing research. Although most institutions such as Harvard possess their own endowments, most of this money is invested and thus not available to integrate into the universities’ annual budgets.

Despite this impending threat, many universities have also remained resolute on shielding undocumented students. For instance, Harvard President Drew Faust declared in an email to the Harvard community that the university will not “voluntarily share information on the immigration status of undocumented members” to protect community values. Although Trump has not formally delineated his plan for sanctuary institutions, he will likely maintain a hardline stance to remain consistent with his other immigration policy proposals.

Sanctuary cities and institutions serve as formal protests against federal immigration policy. Although both have thrived over the past decade, Trump’s administration threatens to change the status quo on immigration policy and impact the millions who are in the country without legal documentation. It remains to be seen whether Trump will carry through with his campaign promises. However, the outlook for immigration sanctuaries is grim.


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