As part of the growing outcry this summer over cities that limit cooperation between law enforcement and U.S. immigration officials, Republicans on Capitol Hill threatened to cut off funding to bring those municipalities in line.
But an examination of some of the federal dollars in play shows that among the largest jurisdictions that receive the funding — including Los Angeles County, San Francisco and Cook County, Ill. — the money represents only a tiny fraction of their law-enforcement budgets, and eliminating it is unlikely to be an effective cudgel to change their behavior.
Cutting funding is "only one leg of the stool," said Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels.
"Die-hard jurisdictions won't be swayed by cutting off money," she said. "They need to be forced to do it."
The standoff between Washington and local governments illustrates the complex effects of the broken immigration system, where cities and states have eked out ways in recent years to maintain order and to provide services to the 11 million or so people living in the U.S. illegally while proposals for more comprehensive solutions fizzle out on Capitol Hill.
Some of the funds now at issue are federal grants called State Criminal Alien Assistance Program reimbursements, which were designed to offset costs incurred by cities or counties for incarcerating inmates in the country illegally.
In its most recent fiscal year, Los Angeles County received $3.4 million in SCAAP funding, according to the Department of Justice, which administers the funding along with the Department of Homeland Security. That's about one-tenth of 1% of the county sheriff's budget of $3.08 billion.
San Francisco received $167,055 in SCAAP funding, .09% of its sheriff's department budget of $176.5 million. And Cook County, Illinois, received $1.3 million in the funding, about .29% of its sheriff's budget of $463 million.
The state of California received $41 million in SCAAP funding, down from $86 million a decade ago, though still more than any other state.
The grants were called into question after the shooting death last month of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle on a pier in San Francisco's famed Embarcadero. The man arrested in her death had been deported five times and was released from custody in the spring after local prosecutors in San Francisco decided not to pursue a decades-old bench warrant in a marijuana case.
The law in San Francisco, a so-called sanctuary city, prohibits municipal employees from asking about immigration status. Several localities adopted the stance to encourage immigrants to cooperate with government officials on a variety of issues without the threat of being turned over to immigration officials. But U.S. lawmakers point to the inconsistency of cities receiving federal funding while not reporting people in the U.S. illegally.
Steinle's death put pressure on Congress to pass legislation to require sanctuary cities to comply with federal deportation efforts, which lawmakers have been attempting for years. Some cities and towns have passed ordinances that instead are aimed at protecting immigrants.
"The tragic murder of Steinle has elevated the importance of the issue to many folks who didn't think about how you can have a [local] government that refuses to abide by federal mandates," said Julie Myers Wood, former director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Chances are better now than they have been," Wood said.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), which passed the House, would cut off SCAAP funds to localities that do not fully cooperate with immigration officials, The bill also would cut money from two other programs, the Community Oriented Policing Services Program, which goes toward hiring and training law enforcement officers, and Justice Assistance Grants, funding that goes to an array of programs.
The city of Los Angeles received $2.1 million in JAG funding. Chicago received $2.6 million in JAG funding. Among Los Angeles, L.A. County, San Francisco and Cook County, none receives COP hiring grants.
"This legislation is about one thing — and that's accountability," Hunter said when the bill passed his chamber.
Joe Kasper, Hunter's chief of staff, defended the legislation as an effective tool to get cities to comply with immigration law and noted that it gained pushback from immigration advocates as well as sanctuary cities.
"This is money that they want," Kasper said. "This is money that they need. Otherwise, they wouldn't be asking for it year in and year out. Anybody who says they would happily bypass whatever amount in annual funding, that is money that's not going to city operations. They're going to feel the pinch, and that's the point here."
Kasper noted that the bill was meant to warn localities to stop disregarding federal law.
"If you want to continue subverting the law, go ahead, but don't expect money from us," Kasper said.
Wood also pointed to the symbolic nature of cutting off SCAAP funding and agreed that it was not a complete fix.
"Focusing on the SCAAP funding is a reasonable first step," Wood said, "but … certainly that can't be enough."A Senate bill co-sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), would require states to comply with federal law enforcement, prevent sanctuary cities from receiving law enforcement or Homeland Security grants and punish those who attempt to reenter the U.S. illegally after deportation with a minimum of five years in prison.
ICE's policy is not to comment on pending legislation, but the agency pointed to its recent initiative to work more closely with state and local law enforcement as part of its strategy on deportations.
Republican presidential candidates have joined the chorus of conservative voices urging Congress to impose penalties on sanctuary cities. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) advocated cutting off federal funds to noncompliant cities. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush went further at the GOP presidential debate this month, saying, "We need to eliminate sanctuary cities."
Immigrants' rights groups oppose both bills.
Chris Newman, the legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, dismissed the discussion in Washington as "political saber rattling," noting that "some of these proposals are riddled with irony, given they're threatening to take away funding that usually has been used to incentivize compliance."