California judge blocks portion of Trump's 'sanctuary cities' order

US NEWS USCANADA 3 ABA
A federal judge has blocked a move by President Donald Trump to keep federal funds from going to sanctuary cities.

A federal judge in California on Tuesday temporarily blocked the portion of President Trump's executive order aimed at pulling federal funding from "sanctuary cities," a ruling that gratified local leaders.

Philadelphia officials had braced for potential funding cuts when Trump signed the order in January. City officials said they were pleased by the ruling by U.S. District Judge William Orrick in San Francisco, but were still reviewing it.

Mayor Kenney’s spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said the city was not considering modifying its sanctuary policies.

Orrick said Trump's executive order was broad and confusing, and had thrown local budgets into uncertainty because cities were unsure whether they would lose funding.

But the injunction is temporary, and Orrick wrote that it did not mean administration officials could not enforce conditions on certain Justice Department grants that require compliance with immigration laws. The administration can still come up with regulations that define a sanctuary city and specify which cities in the United States are considered such, Orrick ruled.

"We will need to continue to work in order to prevent our local law enforcement officers from being forced to adopt policies that would make our city less safe and worsen community relations," Hitt wrote in an email.

Philadelphia does not release inmates or detainees to immigration officials without a federal warrant. Philadelphia also bars its police officers from asking people about their immigration status. 

While critics of sanctuary cities argue that such policies release dangerous criminals onto the streets, city officials say they mean undocumented immigrants are treated no differently from anyone else while in police custody. Proponents of the policy say it builds trust between immigrants and police.

Orrick’s injunction applies nationwide. 

It is the latest ruling by a federal judge that temporarily halts an executive order by the president. Two versions of his order banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries were previously blocked by federal judges in several states. A federal judge in Virginia upheld the travel ban in March, but the other injunctions are still in place.

The White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said the ruling was an example of a federal court  “going bananas.” He said the decision was based on “clear forum-shopping that’s going on in this country – plaintiffs are finding courts to get to.”

“I think the idea that an agency can’t put in some reasonable restriction on how some of these monies are spent is something that will be overturned eventually, and we’ll win at the Supreme Court level at some point,” Priebus said. He said the administration would fight the ruling and make sure that the president's objectives are met, but he would not say what those next steps would be, noting that the decision was only hours old.

San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties had filed a lawsuit over the section of Trump’s order on sanctuary cities and immigration policy that targeted cities that “willfully refuse to comply” with a federal law that prohibits cities from restricting communication with immigration officials. Under Trump’s order, those cities would be ineligible for federal grants, the only exception being for funds “deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes.”

From the start, it was unclear what Philadelphia stood to lose.

Hitt said the city believes it complies with the law, and Orrick wrote Tuesday that Trump’s order never defined what noncompliance with the law meant. Nor did it define sanctuary city.

The order left that definition up to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who, Orrick noted, said two months ago that “he ‘doesn’t have a clue’ how to define sanctuary city.”

“If the secretary has unbounded discretion to designate ‘sanctuary jurisdictions,’ but has no idea how to define that term, states and local jurisdictions have no hope of deciphering what conduct might result in an unfavorable ‘sanctuary jurisdiction’ designation,’ ” Orrick wrote.

The counties arguing for an injunction contended that the executive order was unconstitutional and vague, arguing that only Congress can set conditions for receiving federal grants. Even then, Congress cannot set conditions so harsh that municipalities have no choice but to accept them, they argued, adding that the executive order was doing that by threatening to strip all their federal funding.

Lawyers for the Trump administration had countered that the order never changed existing law, would affect only three Justice Department grants, and merely signaled the president's priorities on immigration.

Orrick, siding with the counties, said Trump and his officials' own public statements contradicted that argument.

“I don’t want to defund anybody. I want to give them the money they need to properly operate as a city or state. If they’re going to have sanctuary cities, we may have to do that. Certainly that would be a weapon,” Orrick quoted Trump as saying during a February interview with Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News host.

Concrete threats to defund Philadelphia over its sanctuary status have come largely from the Justice Department, which awarded Philadelphia $26 million in grants in 2015. In March, Sessions threatened to “claw back” funds from sanctuary cities or make them ineligible for future grants.

And last week, the Justice Department sent Mayor Kenney a letter reminding him that the city must cooperate with immigration officials or risk losing  $1.7 million in federal funds for police overtime and training.

City officials have argued that they do share some information with immigration officials.

“It’s a question of when and how much,” City Solicitor Sozi Tulante said in March.

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.) on Tuesday hailed Orrick’s injunction.

“Our police deserve all the training and equipment funding they can get in order to protect our citizens,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.), who has introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at defunding sanctuary cities, called Orrick an “activist judge” in a statement.

“Sanctuary cities are dangerous to public safety, and we should stop supporting them with federal tax dollars,” he said. 

Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.