Judge: Sessions can't deny grant money for sanctuary cities

Attorney General Jeff Sessions can't follow through - at least for now - with his threat to withhold public safety grant money to Chicago and other so-called sanctuary cities for refusing to impose new tough immigration policies, a judge ruled Friday in a legal defeat for the Trump administration.

A federal judge on Friday blocked the Justice Department from withholding grant funds from places that don't provide immigration authorities access to local jails or give advance notice when people suspected of being in the country illegally are to be released — dealing a major blow to the Trump administration's vowed crackdown on sanctuary cities.

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber in Illinois wrote in a 41-page opinion that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had probably exceeded his lawful authority when he imposed new conditions on particular law enforcement grants, requiring recipients to give immigration authorities access to jails and notice when people suspected of being in the country illegally were to be released.

The judge blocked Sessions from implementing the conditions not just on the City of Chicago — which had sued over the matter — but across the nation, writing that there was "no reason to think that the legal issues present in this case are restricted to Chicago or that the statutory authority given to the Attorney General would differ in another jurisdiction."

His ruling follows an order from another federal judge in California blocking President Trump's executive order on sanctuary cities.

Philadelphia filed its own suit against Sessions over the funding restrictions in August, and it is still in pretrial conferences.

San Francisco, the State of California, and Los Angeles also have federal lawsuits working their way through courts.

In their suit, Philadelphia officials also asked for an injunction against the grant requirements, contending they were not authorized by Congress and violate the 10th Amendment, commandeering local governments to do the work of federal law enforcement.

Justice Department spokesmen did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on Friday's ruling. The judge issued a preliminary injunction — which means the administration is blocked temporarily while the case makes its way through the courts.

The Trump administration has waged an aggressive campaign against sanctuary cities — a term that has no set meaning but which generally refers to places that are welcoming to those in the country illegally and resistant to federal authorities' efforts to deport those in the country illegally.

Trump signed an executive order in January declaring that such places would not be eligible for federal grants, and Sessions has tried to make the threat a reality.

In April, the attorney general demanded that several jurisdictions produce proof that they are communicating with federal authorities about those in the country illegally or risk losing grant funding.

In July, he announced new conditions on a particular pool of money — the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program — requiring recipients to allow federal immigration authorities access to detention facilities and to provide 48 hours' notice before releasing people suspected of being in the country illegally.

"So-called sanctuary policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes," Sessions said in announcing the change. "These policies also encourage illegal immigration and even human trafficking by perpetuating the lie that in certain cities, illegal aliens can live outside the law."

The crackdown, though, has been stymied by the courts. A federal judge in San Francisco largely halted Trump's executive order in April, though his ruling exempted the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which already required places to certify they were complying with an immigration-related law.

After Sessions imposed the new conditions, Chicago, which received $2.33 million for itself and neighboring jurisdictions, sued, saying he was exceeding his authority, and his edict would put at risk funds for critical technology, including to detect when and where gunshots were fired.

Leinenweber largely agreed with the city, though he stopped short of saying it need not certify compliance with an immigration-related law tied to the grant. That law effectively says jurisdictions cannot block their employees from communicating with immigration authorities, though Leinenweber asserted it does not require local authorities to assist their federal counterparts.

Philadelphia's city solicitor, Sozi Pedro Tulante, said in a statement that the city was "gratified" by Friday's ruling.

"We agree that the Attorney General exceeded his authority by imposing these conditions," he wrote. He said that Philadelphia will continue pursuing its own lawsuit "to ensure that the city's interests are fully protected."

Philadelphia's sanctuary city policies prohibit police from asking about the immigration status of anyone they encounter. The city will also not hold undocumented inmates past their release date at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, unless ICE procures a criminal warrant.

Other local elected officials said the move was an encouraging one. City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who also serves as a board member of Local Progress, a national group of progressive city officials, said local governments suing their federal counterparts over perceived overreach is becoming "a consistent theme of this administration."

"Our cities are bound and determined to uphold the law and assert authority on these matters, and we've been right," she said. "We've been consistently right."

The policing grants at stake are used to fund police overtime and training in Philadelphia. The city received $1.67 million in 2016.

"Thank God for the independent judiciary," City Council President Darrell Clarke said in a statement.

"This decision underscores both the sanctity of the rule of law and the critical, life-saving importance of fair and impartial courts." He called the administration's restrictions "contradictory orders that could lead to costly lawsuits" and said the city's residents, regardless of immigration status, deserve due process in court.

"Philadelphians may rest a little easier knowing that justice has been done, at least for today," he said, and urged them to vote in November "to shore up democratic institutions, which are under unprecedented attack by this presidential administration."

Staff writer Aubrey Whelan contributed to this article.