Does it matter if Atlanta is declared a Sanctuary City versus a Welcoming City?

And what is the difference between them?
Atlanta Sanctuary City Welcoming City
Protesters rally against President Trump’s immigration executive order at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

In the wake of controversy over President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, Mayor Kasim Reed has declined to declare Atlanta a “sanctuary city,” calling it instead a “welcoming city.” It’s a distinction that ultimately may not matter—either to immigrants or to the Trump administration.

During the recent protests at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Reed asserted to reporters his “unvarnished opposition to the president’s executive order” that would deny entry to the U.S. to travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa.

But when asked about calls by some residents—and at least one mayoral candidate—to declare Atlanta a sanctuary city, the mayor appeared to bristle.

“If people want to compare a sanctuary city to a welcoming city, I’m happy to have that conversation, but I challenge anyone to identify a city in the Southeast that has done more to be welcoming to immigrants and refugees than the City of Atlanta,” he said. “We shouldn’t be baited into arguments over sanctuary cities versus welcoming cities when there is a real, genuine, authentic threat to the constitutional rights of people in the United States.”

So, what is the difference between the two designations? And why might Reed want to avoid using the “S”-word in relation to Atlanta?

The answer to the second question is easy: President Donald Trump has threatened to strip “sanctuary jurisdictions” of federal funding. Legal experts seem to disagree whether Trump could make good on his threat without violating the Constitution, but certainly that’s an expensive legal question most cities would rather sidestep. Speaking of legal battles, Atlanta also would be picking a fight with Governor Nathan Deal if it assumed sanctuary status. Under a state law passed in 2009, sanctuary cities are illegal in Georgia.

But again, what is a sanctuary city? Unofficially, it’s typically defined as any city that refuses to cooperate with the federal government in identifying or deporting undocumented immigrants. This usually becomes an issue when a local jurisdiction has arrested people whose immigration status is found to be in question.

The official definition . . . actually, there is no official—or legal—definition. The term “sanctuary” is a little like “all-natural” or “artisinal”—it’s used by different people to mean somewhat different things. In the most visible examples, cities like New Orleans have adopted rules prohibiting local officials from sharing information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials about a detainee’s immigration status. Some cities, like Boston, refuse requests by ICE to keep undocumented immigrants in custody until they can be deported. Still others will detain immigrants, but only if ICE foots the bill.

Other major cities considered to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants include New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank that advocates for tightening immigration restrictions. Six entire states, including California and Colorado, have adopted similar policies.

But a city need not adopt a formal resolution calling itself a sanctuary city to serve some of the same purposes. Just after Trump’s election, Reed told WABE: “The priority is keeping the people of Atlanta safe and not executing federal mandates related to immigration.”

But many local jurisdictions in Georgia haven’t adopted Atlanta’s approach. Following the passage in 2011 of a state law allowing local police to demand proof of citizenship of nearly anyone suspected of being undocumented, ICE arrests and deportations rose sharply in Georgia.

In late 2014, Reed created the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and announced the Welcoming Atlanta initiative, a series of policies designed to “reaffirm my administration’s commitment to supporting and welcoming new arrivals” to the city. The program called for more effective immigrant outreach by city departments, including police, but made no explicit mention of cooperation with ICE.

Jerry Gonzales, longtime executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, served on the advisory board that helped produce the Welcoming Atlanta initiative. He said he didn’t fault Atlanta for not declaring itself a sanctuary city.

“The city has taken tremendous steps to make sure that visitors and newcomers feel welcome, and that speaks volumes about its commitment,” Gonzales said. Last spring, the White House praised that commitment, announcing that “Atlanta is leading the charge in creating welcoming communities and serving as a model in the South and for the rest of the nation.”

Even without self-declared sanctuary status, Atlanta’s welcoming stance could attract the ire of the Trump administration. Since there is no official definition of a sanctuary city, some legal experts speculate that the federal government could adopt a broad one that applies to Atlanta and many other jurisdictions.

Still, Trump’s threats haven’t deterred state Sen. Vincent Fort, who has promised to make Atlanta a sanctuary city if he’s elected mayor this fall. Atlanta magazine reached out to several other mayoral candidates to see if they, too, would support Atlanta becoming a sanctuary city, but only Peter Aman offered an answer: “Atlanta is and has always been a welcoming and inclusive city for all.”

We also asked the mayor’s office for his clarification on the practical differences between a sanctuary city and a welcoming city. A spokesperson received the question, asked for a deadline, then—unsurprisingly—went incommunicado.

Some potatoes are too hot to touch.