Across the US, “sanctuary cities” are resisting the Trump administration

'Sanctuary cities' like New York have been challenged by Trump, but they're fighting back. Image: Mathias Wasik

In the US, “sanctuary cities” are, in short, places where local officials do not hand over undocumented migrants to federal agents for deportation.

New York, Chicago, Boston, and several major cities in California all hold “sanctuary” status.

On January 25, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order saying that any municipalities that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials would have their funding withdrawn.

On 27 March, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated the government’s position, saying that sanctuary cities would no longer receive Department of Justice grants.

“Failure to deport aliens who are convicted of criminal offenses puts whole communities at risk, especially immigrant communities in the very sanctuary jurisdictions that seek to protect the perpetrators,” he told a White House news briefing.

He said noncompliance “could result in withholding grants, termination of grants, and disbarment or ineligibility for future grants.”

However, the federal government’s statements have roused ire from city officials, whose local policies and personal convictions directly contravene the federal agenda, causing a deep rift between the two and even, in some cases, litigation.

One man speaks for the world. Image: Mathias Wasik.

The battlefield of the courtroom

“President Trump’s latest threat changes nothing,” said a subsequent statement from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. “We will remain a city welcoming of immigrants who have helped make our city the safest big city in the nation. Any attempt to cut NYPD funding for the nation’s top terror target will be aggressively fought in court.”

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh called threats to cut funding “irresponsible and destructive” in his own city. However, he stopped short of threatening litigation. “The safety and well-being of our residents is, and will continue to be, my top priority as Mayor of Boston,” Walsh said in a statement released on March 27.

De Blasio would by no means be the first to legally challenge the Trump presidency on the issue of sanctuary cities.

San Francisco's resistance outside City Hall. Image: Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

On January 31, San Francisco actively sued the Trump administration. Shortly afterwards, three other northern Californian cities followed suit: Santa Clara County, Salinas City Council, and Richmond. 

“We will be seeking to have the executive order declared unconstitutional and have an injunction issued to enjoin its enforcement,” said Nancy Fineman, a law partner with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, the firm representing the City of Richmond.


She stated, in comments via email, that the president does not have the power to withdraw funding that has already been allocated.

“Under the separation of powers clause of the US constitution, only Congress has the power to disburse money. The president does not have that authority to give or take away money,” she said. “Once Congress appropriates money it cannot take it away.”

The term “sanctuary city” is also open to question there is no fixed definition – there are differences between jurisdictions claiming sanctuary status. “The executive order does not use the term ‘sanctuary cities’ but ‘sanctuary jurisdictions’ which is not defined. What the term ‘sanctuary jurisdiction’ [means] is a big part of the case,” Fineman said. 

This could depend on the individual or body using the term. “What this administration calls a sanctuary policy might be different from what an immigration advocate calls a sanctuary policy,” said University of Denver law professor Christopher Lasch.

Expanding the sanctuaries 

At the beginning of February, California even mulled the possibility of becoming a “sanctuary state”. At the same time, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) also mulled designating itself a “sanctuary in transit” for people in the country illegally. The system links San Francisco to several other towns and cities in the Bay Area.

“We are still working on the resolution,” said Lateefah Simon, who serves on the BART Board of Directors. She added that she would be presenting it to the board “in April”.

Whether “sanctuary” jurisdictions are established or maintained with the sole intention of protecting undocumented migrants is open to question. The City of Richmond’s complaint emphasises the role of immigrants in the local labour force.

“Since the Baby Boomer generation (people born after World War II and before 1965) is heading towards retirement, there is a potential for the labour force to slow down without immigrants and their children being part of the work force. Richmond and the Bay Area need this work force,” the document states.

On March 20, the notoriously wealthy beach city of Malibu, California, adopted sanctuary status.

An unlikely place of protest. Image: Tensaibuta.

“I think some people in Malibu have people working for them who are undocumented,” Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal told the LA Times. However, this doesn’t mean any economic aspects are presently being acknowledged in a widespread way.

“We saw the transformation of the immigration issue from an economic issue into – well, it’s now framed almost entirely in terms of public safety,” said Lasch. “We heard Attorney General Sessions repeat that sanctuary policies are a threat to public safety and to national security.”


Sanctuary status cannot prevent federal immigration officials for nonetheless entering jurisdictions and imposing their own restrictions on undocumented migrants. “Sanctuary suggests that you actually are providing a safe place and so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ will readily concede that they do no offer any safety at all from federal immigration officials,” said Lasch.

Neither federal nor city bodies presently appear too eager to shoulder responsibility, for both legal reasons and in terms of resource allocation.

“Federal immigration enforcement is the business of the federal government ... we don’t have a lot of resources to do the jobs that we need to do anyway, so we’re not going to spend our resources on immigration and policing,” said Lasch.

But all the while, the biting uncertainty for undocumented immigrants is only set to get worse. 

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Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.


In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?