What taxpayers need to know when cities declare themselves sanctuaries

FILE PHOTO: A shop in downtown Santa Ana. The city last month declared itself an immigrant-friendly sanctuary city.
FILE PHOTO: A shop in downtown Santa Ana. The city last month declared itself an immigrant-friendly sanctuary city.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Cities across Southern California have named themselves immigrant-friendly "sanctuary cities" as they take a stand against President-elect Donald Trump's pledge to deport millions living in the country illegally.

But their actions are not without risks -- political, legal and budgetary. So what should taxpayers know when their officials declare their cities as sanctuaries?

First, there's no consensus on what a sanctuary city means: sometimes it refers to cities where police don't ask about the immigration status of people they encounter. Los Angeles, for example, has a policy known as Special Order No. 40 — it states officers "shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person."

Sanctuary cities can also refuse requests of federal immigration agents to hold immigrants for deportation in local jails.

But as more cities take up these policies, they could expose themselves on several fronts, including financially. Trump has promised within his first 100 days in office to pull federal funding from cities with sanctuary policies. 

For La Puente, which last week declared itself a sanctuary city, it's a calculated risk, said City Manager David Carmany.

City officials have weighed the potential loss of federal funds. The city expects to receive about $2.3 million this year from Washington, D.C., coming through community development block grants and funds for services that include public safety, transportation and recreation.

The federal money adds to the city's roughly $12 million general fund. Nonetheless, "we think the principle of treating people decently is more important than some fear of losing federal money," Carmany said.

Cities have defined their sanctuary policies differently and it remains unclear which practices might trigger federal repercussions.

Carmany said the La Puente's sanctuary resolution doesn't change current practices concerning law enforcement or city services. The city contracts with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for police services; Sheriff's officials have stated that the agency will not detain anyone solely on suspicion of being in the country illegally. 

But Carmany said the La Puente City Council wanted to make a public statement "because our community has a lot of people who are very fearful right now." Carmany said post-election concerns have caused city officials to worry that immigrant residents won't report crimes, or will fear sending their children to school. 

La Puente's population is 85 percent Latino and 40 percent of its roughly 40,000 residents are foreign-born, according to census data. 

"We don’t want to have people scared that, when they call us, they will be wrapped up in some bigger enforcement action because of their immigration status," he said.

Carmany said part of the thinking is there's no guarantee a Trump administration will withhold funds from cities around the country or that federal programs that help provide the funding will be rescinded. 

Cities could find themselves in legal battles if they need to defend themselves against federal actions or challenge any withholding of federal funds.

But California cities shouldn't be jeopardizing their federal funding, said John Berry, a Tea Party activist in Redlands who opposes sanctuary policies. Should cities defy the incoming administration and do lose out, they can't say they haven't been warned, he said. 

"Whether it's a penny, a dollar or a million dollars, the point is that that's our money coming back from Washington," Berry said. "And it's going to be denied because the city made a choice to engage to protect illegal residents."

Taxpayer groups are watching to see what actions the Trump administration will take, but say that there's much that's unknown.

"It's just speculation at this point," said Carolyn Cavecche, president and CEO of the Orange County Taxpayers Association, adding it's still too soon for her group to take a position on sanctuary cities and federal funding. "But we're monitoring the situation."

La Puente's Carmany said the city is preparing to go without if the federal funding is withheld.

"We might live without rebuilding that bathroom," Carmany said, as an example. "We might not have some of these transportation moneys to pave streets, or to put in safe routes to schools, flashing signals near our elementary and middle schools. We might not be able to run a summer lunch program. It's either-or with us."