Amidst the well-placed outrage over Trump’s Executive Order selectively banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries – including an array of critiques, lawsuits, and court decisions challenging its legality and wisdom – Trump’s Executive Order (EO) on Sanctuary Cities, which threatens to cut off federal funds to so-called “sanctuary cities,” has been somewhat overlooked. While at least one observer notes that what’s become known as the “travel ban” EO has provided cover for the Sanctuary Cities EO, it may well be that the latter turns more on symbolism than substance. Nonetheless, the threatened termination of federal funds prompted San Francisco to file suit against Donald Trump, making it the first city to challenge the president in court over the order, calling the order unconstitutional.
How did we get here? The term “sanctuary city” is itself somewhat of a misnomer today, in the sense that it now applies to a range of cities beyond its original context. It originally grew out of the church-centered movement that responded to the influx of Central American refugees who fled civil wars in the 1980s, but were denied asylum in the United States. Churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions came together to oppose the repatriation of refugees to the countries they had fled because they feared persecution. This movement became known as the Sanctuary Movement. At its height, over 150 congregations publicly defied the federal government, openly sponsoring and supporting undocumented refugee families, largely from El Salvador and Guatemala.