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Here’s why Seattle decided to sue the federal government.

News broke on Wednesday that Seattle is suing the Trump administration over its threat to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary cities.”

The reason for the city’s lawsuit was an announcement that Attorney General Jeff Sessions made on Monday. Sessions announcement was basically a threat to withhold federal funds from US cities that don’t comply with the Trump administration’s immigration orders.

Those orders (so far, anyways) have mostly involved asking local authorities for the immigration status of undocumented workers?—?presumably so federal agents can go arrest them.

But slow down, fella! Let’s start with the basics.

What is a sanctuary city, anyway?

There’s no exact legal definition, but the term can be used to describe any jurisdiction that instructs its police and/or prison officials to disobey federal officials’ orders to round up and deport undocumented immigrants.

Rosario Dawson at a 2012 protest. |

The term appears to have been born in 1979 in Los Angeles, when the city’s police department adopted an order that prohibited officers from detaining someone in order to find out their immigration status. The reason for the order was twofold:

Effective police work requires cooperation. Fear of being deported often makes illegal immigrants afraid to give tips to the cops or call cops to report criminal activity.

Heartwarmingly, the LAPD also acknowledged that “the Constitution of the United States guarantees equal protection to all persons within its jurisdiction.” So their order sought to enforce the law in an equal manner, “regardless of alien status.”

In the early 80s, other cities like Tucson, Arizona and San Francisco followed Los Angeles’s lead and a movement was born.

Are sanctuary cities legal?

Many people have voiced outrage that US cities can openly defy the president. Those people typically point to US Code 1373 to support their argument. Code 1373 is a law passed in 1996 that forbids local officials from refusing to share the citizenship or immigration status of any individual with federal immigration agencies. Trump has said that sanctuary cities violate that law.

But some legal scholars beg to differ. Constitutional experts have cited the 10th amendment?—?as well as a little-known court ruling called Printz Vs. The United States?—?as reasons why it may be perfectly legal for US cities and counties to set themselves up as safe havens for undocumented immigrants.

The 10th amendment says clearly that any power that the US Constitution doesn’t specifically give to the federal government lies in the hands of the people or with the individual states. In Printz Vs. The United States, a federal court set a precedent that the US government cannot “commandeer” state or local governments by coercing them to comply with federal laws?—?a principle that Trump’s threat to cut funding may violate.

Why is everyone so bent out of shape about them now?

Excellent question. The issue got hot in the summer of 2015 when an undocumented immigrant who’d been convicted of seven felonies and deported from the US five times fatally shot a young woman in San Francisco.

As early as two days after the killing, then-presidential candidate Trump began mentioning the victim in his tweets and in campaign appearances in order to back up his claims that Hispanic immigrants were “killers,” “rapists” and “bad hombres.”

Partly because of Trump, the San Francisco killing (which may have been accidental) provoked a national conversation about the way sanctuary cities protect illegal immigrants.

Where are America’s sanctuary cities and counties?

The number of sanctuary jurisdictions in the US has surged in recent years. In 2012 there were only a few dozen such communities, but today estimates put the total number of sanctuary cities and counties in the US between 300 and 550. They include New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix and Portland.

Hell, there are even some in Texas?—?Austin, Houston and Dallas are on the list, too.

What will Trump’s executive order do?

On Jan. 25, President Trump signed an executive order to withhold federal grant money from so-called sanctuary cities.

The order threatens to cut off federal funding for cities and counties that defy immigration directives.

While it’s not clear what forms of funding Trump would cut (or how much he would cut them), White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Jan. 25?—?the same day the executive action was signed?—?that the Department of Homeland Security would “look at funding streams that are going to those cities and look at how we can defund those streams.”

Some cities receive a lot of federal cash and are therefore vulnerable to that scenario. New York City’s comptroller (read: the guy who controls the budget) said in November that $7 billion in annual funds?—?much of which New York uses to support vulnerable populations like the homeless?—?are in danger of being cut off by Trump’s sanctuary cities order.

Some jurisdictions have already caved under the pressure: The mayor of Miami, for example?—?a city that’s historically been friendly to newcomers from foreign countries?—?ordered county prison officials on Jan. 26 to “fully cooperate” with all Department of Homeland Security requests to detain immigrants.

Of course, the matter is far from settled. There will likely be a legal showdown between the Trump administration and sanctuary cities across the country. Expect to see the issue dominating headlines in the coming months.