In the latest rebuke of President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant policies, a federal court judge on Tuesday ruled the administration's threat to withhold funds from so-called "sanctuary cities"—which offer modest safer harbor for immigrants and undocumented residents in the face of federal detention and deportation requests—as unconstitutional.
Issuing a temporary injunction against a move by the U.S. Justice Department to refuse grant money from California municipalities, U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick said the Trump administration's effort to withhold more than $1 billion in federal grants from Santa Clara and San Francisco counties was illegal.
Though the ruling affirmed the government may have some authority to seek local compliance with federal law, Orrick cited public comments by both President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions as evidence that the administration was reaching beyond legal limitations in order to punish cities which take a different approach to immigration.
"If there was doubt about the scope of the Order, the President and Attorney General have erased it with their public comments," Orrick wrote in his decision. "The Constitution vests the spending power in Congress, not the President, so the Order cannot constitutionally place new conditions on federal funds."
As the Washington Post explains:
Constitutional scholars like Ilya Somin at George Mason University have long argued that the Trump administration would lose a legal battle like this. You can't cut off funding for sanctuary cities willy-nilly, he says, because the Supreme Court has ruled you can't slap conditions on federal grants without explicitly telling states about the conditions.
It would take an act of Congress to go back and insert a clause declaring these unrelated law enforcement, health-care and poverty grants deliverable only if jurisdictions hand over their illegal immigrants for deportation when the government asks for them. (Congress getting involved in all this is impossible to imagine, but it's much, much, much slower than Trump just issuing an executive order to strip these cities of funding.)
Immigrant rights advocates welcomed the ruling.
"We are gratified that the court recognized the profound danger to our democracy posed by the President’s attempt to exercise unconstitutional powers," said William Freeman, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a statement. "Under our system of government, the President cannot coerce cities, counties and states to become agents of federal immigration enforcement by threatening the loss of funds appropriated by Congress."
"Once again, the courts have spoken to defend tolerance, diversity and inclusion form the illegal threats of the Trump administration," said Faiz Shakir, national political director for the ACLU, in a statement. "Once again, Trump has overreached and lost."