Trump's Holdout on Federal Funds to Sanctuary Cities Ruled Unconstitutional

A Federal Judge ruled Friday that the Trump administration’s throttling of government grants to regions with “sanctuary cities” is unconstitutional.

A protest rally in support of immigrants held in Seattle, Washington. Photo: Photo by Nitish Meena on, CC0

The case involves the power of the Federal government to regulate cities and states which provide protection for undocumented and illegal immigrants.

In one of his first acts in occupying the White House in January 2017, Donald Trump issued an executive order instructing the Department of Justice to withhold federal grants to sanctuary cities. The specific grants were what are referred to as public safety grants, and generally assist the local police in each jurisdiction.

In issuing the order, the Justice Department was adding new requirements to a Federal grant program authorized by law years ago, without changing the law. It required that local governments must tell federal agents when immigrants are residing illegally in the country and let federal agents question inmates at local correctional institutions about their immigration status. The order required further that local governments were not allowed to limit federal immigration officials’ authority in any way regarding their demand for citizenship information – from anyone.

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session made it even clearer when he announced the changes in the grant program. He said that, “We must encourage these ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions to change their policies and partner with federal law enforcement to remove criminals.”

The leverage for doing that was the Federal government withholding the public safety grants from those regions which refused to comply with the order.

The city and state of New York, along with Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington state, filed suit to have the ruling overturned. In a case led by New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood, the plaintiffs alleged the Trump administration’s withholding of funds was in direct violation of states’ rights in how to run their own regions and determining how to spend funds.

District Judge Edgardo Ramos agreed with the plaintiffs. He said that the justice department had a “lack of authority” to deny the estimated $29 million worth of federal grants from being used by local law enforcement agencies. He noted the U.S. Constitution’s 10th amendment in justifying his decision. It says both simply and forcefully that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Judge went on to say that, “The separation of powers acts as a check on tyranny and the concentration of power.” He also specifically noted how wrong the Justice Department was to require information-sharing regarding citizenship, ruling that this “impinges on (the states’ and city’s) sovereign authority and their citizens’ liberty to be regulated under their preferred state and local policies.”

The judge did rule against the plaintiffs’ request that the ruling be declared as applying nationwide. The decision therefore only applies to the seven states who filed this case. Similar decisions in federal courts in Pennsylvania, California and Illinois now protect those states from this particular abuse of Federal power.

Judge Ramos also immediately ordered the Federal government to begin releasing current federal grants and to pay back past withheld grants to the cities and states involved.

New York Attorney General Underwood said the ruling was a “major win”. In a statement released after the ruling, she said that, “The Trump administration’s attempt to withhold these vital funds was nothing more than a political attack at the expense of our public safety.”