Federal Court: Trump Admin. 'Literally Has No Power to Act' to Punish Sanctuary Cities

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on February 20, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As President Trump has made immigration a central policy arena, sanctuary cities and states have become important flashpoints of legal action. Under former Attorney General Jeff Session, the Justice Department threatened to withhold federal funds from cities and states that declined to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts, and those sanctuary jurisdictions responded with lawsuits.

Thus far, those suits have been successful in ensuring that the federal government may not condition the allocation of funds on immigration assistance. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals dealt another blow to the DOJ, ruling that only Congress could create such conditions on federal funds.

Power to Act

The Justice Department was attempting to withhold about $1.5 million in federal law-enforcement funds due to Philadelphia under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant unless the city agreed to assist immigration enforcement officials in identifying, apprehending, and turning over undocumented immigrants. Philadelphia sued, and a lower federal court ruled in the city's favor, issuing an injunction against the DOJ. The feds appealed, and lost again.

"Where, as here, the Executive Branch claims authority not granted to it in the Constitution," the Third Circuit noted, "it 'literally has no power to act ... unless and until Congress confers power upon it.'" The question would then become "whether Congress empowered the Attorney General" to impose immigration collaboration conditions on funds it had already allocated to cities like Philadelphia. The answer was a resounding, "no": "After reviewing the three sources of authority offered by the Attorney General, we hold that Congress has not empowered the Attorney General to enact the Challenged Conditions."

"Philadelphia is proud to be a city that welcomes all of those who seek safe haven," Mayor Jim Kenney said after the ruling, "and this ruling affirms our right to do so."

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