In the aftermath of the presidential election, the phrase “sanctuary city” has found its way into the national conversation. The problem is that there is no common understanding of what it means. There is a common misperception that “sanctuary cities” can somehow prevent the Department of Homeland Security from enforcing immigration laws within their boundaries. That is not accurate.

Despite numerous cities declaring themselves a “sanctuary city,” DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers can take someone into custody if they have evidence of an immigration violation or take action against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. This is true of any city in the country.coleman-hodges

To be sure, Coleman repeated past assurances that residents will not routinely be asked about their immigration status by city staff under the terms of a 2004 Employee Authority in Immigration Matters ordinance.

We want everyone to call the police when they are the victim of or witness to a crime without fear they will be asked about their immigration status. We want everyone to call the paramedics in a medical emergency, enroll their children in after-school programs or use our library services. Our staff — including our police officers — will not ask for proof of immigration status. Period.

At the same time, the three-term mayor also underscored that criminals, undocumented or not, will be dealt with accordingly.

The City of Saint Paul does not provide safe harbor to criminals. While we know that the percentage of undocumented residents who commit criminal offenses is very, very small, if someone is suspected of committing a criminal offense, they will be prosecuted and, if found guilty, appropriately sentenced. If they are also in violation of federal immigration laws, those matters will be handled separately by the Department of Homeland Security.

Perhaps he’s merely parsing words, but Coleman comes close to asking whether there’s such a thing as a “sanctuary city”. He argues that “sanctuary city ordinances” actually amount to “separation ordinances” that essentially reiterate the different roles and responsibilities of local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement.

Chiefs of police across the country have supported the enactment of ordinances similar to this in their communities, because mutual trust is the foundation for safe and strong communities. Indeed, I suspect that every city now being described as a “sanctuary city” would be more accurately described as having a separation ordinance.

Ultimately, Coleman plays to his constituents by normalizing their fear “of what lies ahead” and promising to “resist any attempt by the federal government to tell us how to police our community or to turn our officers into ICE agents.”

But the St. Paul mayor’s attempt to provide “separation” shows some cities may recognize a need to review and reconsider their policy on the hot-button issue given the new reality in Washington.