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Soon after he was sworn in as president of the United States, Donald Trump signed an executive order designed to punish so-called sanctuary cities that offer safe harbor to undocumented immigrants by withholding federal funds.

Many questions remain about the executive order, including what specific funds the president is referring to, and even what a "sanctuary city" is.

The executive order says funds will be withheld from entities labeled as “sanctuary jurisdictions” by the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Some mayors of towns in New Jersey and across the nation have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities. And some towns that are generally recognized by immigrant rights organizations and other groups to be sanctuary cities, have disputed the designation.

The term "sanctuary city" generally refers to towns that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, usually by preventing local resources from being used to prosecute or detain immigrants who are in the country illegally.

This month, local officials declared Hopewell Borough in Mercer County and Prospect Park in Bergen County sanctuary cities, citing the need for residents to be able to turn to the police to report crimes or cooperate with investigations, or to avail themselves of vital services without fear of arrest and deportation.

"President Trump wants local law enforcement to act as deputy agents of ICE,” said Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed T. Khairullah, a Syrian immigrant, referring to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “We are saying we are not going to do that.”

“We are saying to our residents: You can seek municipal services without fear of being handed over to the federal government. If you need police, if you need help, come to us without fear.”

Not a 'sanctuary city,' but ...

The mayor of Linden in Union County and New Brunswick in Middlesex County insist they are not sanctuary cities, even though city services are available to immigrants regardless of their legal status.

New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill says his police department follows all guidelines established by the county prosecutor as well as state and federal.

But he notes that police do not enforce federal immigration laws and don't "participate in raids or investigations involving immigration status."

"Our police have worked hard to build trust with the immigrant community, essential in creating a safe community, and will continue to do so," Cahill said last week in a statement.

How much could they lose?

The issue of what funds could legally be withheld from sanctuary cities remains murky, but it doesn’t appear the total amount would be very significant.

“Large grants like the community development grants, he has no power over those, those have to go through the U.S. Congress,” said Chia-Chia Wang, organizing and advocacy director of the American Friends Service Committee.

Wang says targeted funds could be grants from the Department of Justice of Homeland Security.

A review of municipal budgets in Newark and Jersey City, whose mayors have declared their cities as sanctuaries for immigrants, finds that only a fraction of their revenues come directly from the federal government.

In 2015, Jersey City received at least $13.7 million, or about 2.4 percent of its budget, of of it for counterterrorism, anti-crime, port security and welfare programs. That year, Newark received at least $38.9 million, or 6 percent of the city budget, much of it for public housing and police.

In the past, federal courts have ruled the federal government can only withhold funding if the money in question is tied to the specific policy issue involved, so that would suggest the only money that could be withheld would be federal grants tied to law enforcement.

Wang stressed if and when there is an attempt to cut any federal grant funding, “there will be a lot of legal battles over this.

"I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. He believes he has the power, but he may not have that power.”

Wang noted there are laws, and a system of checks and balances in this country, and those who are elected “will have to have a say in these kinds of decisions.”

Preparing for the worst

Dianna Houenou, the policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, agrees the president’s order remains a fuzzy question mark.

“We don’t know what funding is actually going to be targeted within state and local budgets,” she said.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in actually how the federal government plans to enforce this withdrawal of federal funds.”

She added the ACLU wants to get additional information about this situation as quickly as possible.

“That way cities and states can continue to protect their residents in a way that doesn’t violate state and federal law,” she said.

Toward that end, Houenou said the ACLU and other groups “are certainly going to be looking into the law and seeing what the possibilities are, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

Meanwhile state Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson, and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, have announced their sponsorship of a measure that would require the state of New Jersey to provide supplementary grant funding for any municipality or county that is denied federal grant funding under the President’s executive order.

Even if the Democratic-controlled Legislature passes the bill, it will almost certainly be vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, who has said he supports Trump's hard line on sanctuary cities.

Sergio Bichao contributed to this report.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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