In late August, Representative Tom Tancredo, a no-chance GOP presidential candidate, stood behind a podium on the steps of the city hall in Newark, New Jersey. Just two weeks before, three college students had been murdered, and two illegal immigrants had been named as suspects.

As protestors circled on the sidewalk below, Tancredo leaned into an array of microphones. “The fact that Newark, New Jersey, is a sanctuary city for illegal aliens is well known,” he said. “Their polices are a violation of federal law.”

Tancredo’s speech drew national media attention and highlighted the campaign debate over so-called “sanctuary cities,” some of which anti-immigration forces contend are willfully defying federal immigration laws. But despite what Tancredo and many others claim, it’s highly unlikely that Newark’s immigration policies—or the policies of any other major American city, for that matter—are in violation of federal law. And no one on any side of the country’s immigration debate can really define clearly and specifically what a “sanctuary city” is.

The term exists in a linguistic no-man’s land, a frame that suggests urban officials abet soft-headed lawlessness. At best, the press has done a poor job of explaining the motivation and legal framework behind policies slapped with the label; at worst, it has recycled and showcased the term, which is little more than an anti-immigration talking point, without much analysis or skepticism.

Like all good spin, the “sanctuary city” rhetoric contains an ounce of truth. Across the country, cities, counties, states, and police departments of all sizes have adopted policies that limit their participation in active enforcement of federal immigration laws. The reasoning behind these “limiting” policies is not ideological, but rather practical: to the extent that federal laws disrupt local policing efforts, the arguments goes, it is counterproductive to vigorously enforce those laws.

But the term is often used it to refer an even broader constellation of polices. Many are symbolic, like Highstown, New Jersey’s request that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers not shout “Police!” when busting down doors during immigration raids. Others prohibit city employees from asking someone their citizenship status unless suspected or arrested for a crime. According to a position paper released by the Major City Chiefs Association, which represents police executives from the country’s sixty-three largest jurisdictions, if undocumented immigrants fear deportation from local police they’ll never talk—even if witness to or victim of a crime.

But such approaches—driven by concerns over local crime—hardly provide illegal immigrants with anything that could be reasonably called a “safe haven” or “sanctuary.”

That didn’t stop Allison King of New England Cable News from using the terms when she served as a questioner at the September 26 MSNBC Democratic presidential debate. “Sanctuary cities,” she claimed, “provide a safe haven for illegal immigrants, where police are told not to involve themselves in immigration matters.” She then asked the candidates if they would “allow these cities to ignore the federal law regarding the reporting of illegal immigrants and, in fact, provide sanctuary to these immigrants?”

But none of the cities in question prohibit ICE from coming to town, or instruct police to obstruct the work of ICE officers. Police departments, even those in so-called “sanctuary cities,” routinely contact the feds with information about criminals who are also illegal aliens. As Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a congressional committee in early September, “People use the term ‘sanctuary city’ in different ways so I’m never quite sure what people mean.”

“I’m not aware of any city—although I may be wrong—that actually interferes with our ability to enforce the law,” he added

“Sanctuary city” is provocative and catchy, and so it appeals to reporters looking to distill complicated issues into workable stories on deadline. Defenders of the local strategies that spawned the moniker lack a similarly punchy retort.

The immigrant-friendly National Immigration Law Center has compiled a list of local policies that, ironically, is often referred by anti-immigration activists and politicians to show how widespread “sanctuary cites” have become.

“I have trouble finding the bumper-sticker version to accurately describe this,” says Joan Friedland, a lawyer with the Immigration Law Center. Her organization headlines its list: “Laws, Resolutions and Policies Instituted Across the U.S. Limiting Enforcement of Immigration Laws by State and Local Authorities”—a phrase unlikely to make it on air or into a headline.

Knowing a little about the term’s history is important to understanding its current, imputed meaning. In the 1980s, church-based activists aimed to shelter refugees displaced by U.S. policies in Central America. They proudly used the word “sanctuary” when urging people to flout civil immigration law as a matter of civil disobedience.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.