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Sanctuary Cities Are Winning

A federal court blocks Trump’s January executive order seeking to punish jurisdictions that divorce local policing from federal immigration enforcement.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera talks about a federal judge's order.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera talks about a federal judge's order. (Eric Risberg/AP)

On Tuesday, a federal judge in California blocked President Donald Trump’s January executive order seeking to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities—jurisdictions that limit cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in some way. In essence, U.S. District Judge William Orrick of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the executive order is overly broad and constitutionally fraught.

“The bottom line is that the federal court has dealt a major setback to President Trump's attacks on sanctuary cities,” says César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an associate professor at University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “I imagine that the federal government will appeal, but, for now, the Trump Administration cannot go forward with its hope of punishing cities and counties for limiting their cooperation with ICE.”

The Trump order was based on a statute (U.S. Code 1373) that forbids local governments from withholding information about immigration status of an individual from federal authorities. Promptly after he signed it, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit, arguing, among other things, that the 10th Amendment limits the power of the federal government to “commandeer” states and localities—a claim backed up by many legal experts. California’s Santa Clara County followed.

Judge Orrick’s decision affirms the local governments’ case that the Trump’s order amounts to a loaded gun pointed at the head of local governments. It “threatens to deny sanctuary jurisdictions all federal grants, hundreds of millions of dollars on which the Counties rely,” the decision reads. “The threat is unconstitutionally coercive.” The ruling also questions the extent of the president’s control on the federal purse strings: “The Constitution vests the spending powers in Congress, not the President, so the Order cannot constitutionally place new conditions on federal funds,” the court decision reads.

President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have made many public pronouncements about punishing sanctuary cities by stripping billions of dollars in federal funding, but during the hearings, the administration’s lawyers tried to sell the judge on a narrower interpretation. They argued that it would only apply only to a limited number of Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice grants. Judge Orrick didn’t buy it. The lawyers’ reading “renders the Order toothless,” he writes in the ruling, and is quite different from the language Trump signed off on. Peter Mancina, an immigration scholar at Vanderbilt University, explains that distinction further on Twitter:

The court ruling comes days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent out letters to nine cities, asking for proof on their compliance with U.S.C. 1373. One of San Francisco’s arguments was that this statute itself is unconstitutional, but the judge didn’t address that specifically. What it did say was that, while the federal government can technically pull funds, they can’t do it in the slapdash way put forth in the order, at the whim of the president. George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin explains in The Washington Post:

In this case, none of the federal grants given to sanctuary cities were conditioned by Congress on compliance with Section 1373 or any other form of cooperation with federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. The president cannot impose such conditions on his own.

This order, and the one banning the entry of people from seven Muslim majority countries and suspending the entry of refugees, share a key feature: They’re both unable to veil the administration’s legally dubious intentions in court. That’s why, for local governments opposing Trump on immigration, Trump's first 100 days have amounted to a series of victories. And per Judge Orrick's reading, their case is good enough that they're likely to retain that winning streak.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.