In an apparent retreat on the war against cities and counties that refuse to cooperate with immigration enforcement, the Trump administration has settled on a narrow definition of what it means to be a “sanctuary city,” and limited the potential financial consequences for state and local governments.
At most, the sanctuary jurisdictions will lose grants from the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department — not all federal funds, according to an order signed Monday by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.
During last year’s campaign and in the early days of the administration, President Trump and Sessions frequently attacked cities, states and corrections agencies that refused to assist with federal immigration enforcement, saying illegal immigration was fueling what they described as a surge in gang violence and other crime.
Five days after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that said sanctuary jurisdictions were not eligible to receive federal grants, and Sessions later emphasized that point at a White House news briefing.
“Countless Americans would be alive today and countless loved ones would not be grieving today if these policies of sanctuary cities were ended,” Sessions said.
The Justice Department followed that on April 21 with letters to nine jurisdictions, saying they were at risk of losing their grants from the department.
But U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick III in San Francisco blocked enforcement of Trump’s order nationwide on April 25, ruling that it violated the Constitution and brought on “substantial confusion and justified fear” in local governments that they would lose all their federal grants, not just their law enforcement funding.
“The president has called it ‘a weapon’ to use against jurisdictions that disagree with his preferred policies of immigration enforcement,” said Orrick, appointed a judge by President Obama. Orrick’s ruling came as a response to lawsuits filed by the city of San Francisco and Santa Clara County.
In an angry tweet, Trump called the ruling “ridiculous” and vowed to “see you in the Supreme Court!” The administration has not yet filed an appeal.
The ruling was an early setback for Trump’s plans to crack down on immigration. Federal judges also froze his order banning travel from six Muslim-majority nations, and his promise build a wall on the southwestern border hasn’t been funded by Congress.
The Trump administration had never actually spelled out what it meant to be a sanctuary city. On the campaign trail, Trump focused on immigrants who committed crimes after cities released them from custody, including the case of Kathryn Steinle, a San Francisco woman who was killed by a man in the country illegally who had been in jail.
But Sessions’ memo, a reaction to Orrick’s order, doesn’t mention that. Instead, it says that the term will apply only to places that “willfully refuse to comply” with a 1996 federal law that requires federal, state and local governments to share information about someone’s immigration status.
That means Trump’s threat in his executive order may not amount to much. When cities and counties accept grants from the Justice Department, they already agree to comply with that law — and Orrick’s order also said he wasn’t barring the administration from enforcing existing grant agreements.
It also means Trump’s Jan. 25 order won’t apply to cities and counties that refuse to honor “detainer” requests to hold people who are in the country illegally for arrest on immigration charges.
More than 400 jurisdictions around the country have some type of sanctuary policy, including about 40 in California.
Among them is the southeast Los Angeles County suburb of Maywood, where Councilman Eduardo De La Riva expressed relief over Sessions’ decision.
“I am glad to see that … Sessions has taken the time to define — or, at the very least, finally taken the time to understand — what a sanctuary city is and is not,” De La Riva said. “It’s great to see that the president’s administration is finally catching up with what many of us already know.”
Maywood declared itself a sanctuary 11 years ago, at a time when it was unusual to do so. It ordered local police not to enforce federal immigration laws.
However, De La Riva said, that came with the understanding that city officials didn’t have the authority to impede or block federal officials from removing people who were in the country without legal status.
“We wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop a deportation,” De La Riva said.
Immigration rights advocates saw the Sessions’ memo as an admission by the Justice Department that the law was not on its side in the sanctuary city argument.
“It was just bluster that had no basis in law,” said David Leopold, a lawyer from Cleveland.
But Sessions' memo makes it clear that the administration has not given up on its goals of using the power of federal funding in the future to push for tougher enforcement. Sessions said the Justice Department can still “point out ways that state and local jurisdictions are undermining our lawful system of immigration.”
“Going forward, the [Justice] Department, where authorized, may seek to tailor grants to promote a lawful system of immigration,” Sessions wrote.
Times staff writer Cindy Carcamo in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
7 p.m.: The story was updated with reaction from Maywood.
The story was originally posted at 5 p.m.