Trump’s efforts to crack down on sanctuary cities dealt a major blow

A federal judge ruled the Department of Justice cannot deny public safety funding to cities that protect undocumented immigrants.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington. CREDIT: AP Andrew Harnik File
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington. CREDIT: AP Andrew Harnik File

President Donald Trump’s efforts to crack down on immigration were dealt yet another blow when a federal judge in Chicago ruled that public safety grants cannot be withheld from cities that refuse to comply unreservedly with federal law enforcement on immigration.

“The court finds that the city has established that it would suffer irreparable harm if a preliminary injunction is not entered,” U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber wrote Friday. The ruling, he added, is “nationwide in scope” with “there being no reason to think that the legal issues present in this case are restricted to Chicago.”

The decision marks the latest in a swift turn of events. Early last month, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (D) announced a lawsuit against the Department of Justice over the department’s assertion that the city could be denied grants over its immigration stance. That threat didn’t go over well — Chicago received $2.3 million in law enforcement grants in 2016, with a similar amount initially expected in 2017, and city officials expressed concern that the funding shortage would severely impact public safety.

“Chicago will not let our police officers become political pawns in a debate,” Emmanuel declared at the time, signaling that Chicago would join cities like San Francisco and Seattle, which have also taken action against the federal government.


So-called sanctuary cities have long been a source of frustration for the Trump administration, which has instituted a harsh crackdown on immigration across the country. As a presidential candidate, Trump pledged to ramp up deportations and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In the months since taking office, he has moved to cut documented immigration in half, in addition to aggressively targeting undocumented immigrants. Earlier this month, Trump announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a lifeline for around 800,000 young undocumented people living in the United States.

With the White House seeking to curb immigration across the nation, cities have found themselves on the front lines of a dispute over public safety. Cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has historically served to divide law enforcement and the public, driving a wedge between police and many communities. That problem is one officials are well aware of; in states from California to Texas, many cities have moved to adopt policies discouraging law enforcement from enquiring about immigration status, and prioritizing public safety over detention and deportation.

Those efforts haven’t gone over well with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has sought to punish urban hubs failing to cooperate with federal immigration policy. In March, he announced that cities opting to skirt full cooperation with ICE could see their federal grant money severely impacted, placing access to $4.1 billion in jeopardy for areas across the country — a move that spurred legal action from cities like Chicago.

But Sessions’ clashes with Chicago have taken on a particular animosity, with the attorney general honing in on the city’s crime statistics and accusing city officials of failing to stand by constituents.

“They have demonstrated an open hostility to enforcing laws designed to protect law enforcement — federal, state, and local — and reduce crime, and instead have adopted an official policy of protecting criminal aliens who prey on their own residents,” Sessions said after Chicago’s lawsuit was announced. “This is astounding given the unprecedented violent crime surge in Chicago, with the number of murders in 2016 surpassing both New York and Los Angeles combined. The city’s leaders cannot follow some laws and ignore others and reasonably expect this horrific situation to improve.”


But that approach isn’t seeing much sympathy in court. Leinenweber’s 41-page opinion argued that Sessions likely exceeded his legal authority with his threats. Cautioning that the Justice Department’s approach could cause “irreparable harm,” he also pointed to concerns over mistrust between the public and law enforcement.

“Once such trust is lost, it cannot be repaired through an award of money damages, making it the type of harm that is especially hard to rectify,” Leinenweber wrote.

The Justice Department swiftly fired back over the ruling, signaling that federal officials would continue to fight cities over their immigration policies.

“By protecting criminals from immigration enforcement, cities and states with ‘so-called’ sanctuary policies make their communities less safe and undermine the rule of law,” department spokesperson Devin O’Malley said in a statement. “The Department of Justice will continue to fully enforce existing law and to defend lawful and reasonable grant conditions that seek to protect communities and law enforcement.”

Others were far more receptive. Emmanuel lauded the ruling as an “affirmation of the rule of law” and “an assertion of our most fundamental American values.”

The decision is notably a preliminary injunction, meaning the Trump administration is temporarily — but not permanently — blocked from action while the case progresses through the courts.