Legally Speaking: Trump’s Sanctuary City Threats
Trump has issued a number of threats against so-called “sanctuary” cities and states, and his supporters (most of whom, ironically, would be considered “states’ rights” supporters) have declared such local designations illegal.
So it was interesting to read a recent column by Ilya Somin, a conservative legal scholar, analyzing the relative constitutional rights involved.
President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to engage in large-scale deportation of undocumented immigrants. In order to accomplish that goal, he is likely to need the cooperation of state and local governments, as federal law enforcement personnel are extremely limited. But numerous cities have “sanctuary” policies under which they are committed to refusing cooperation with most federal deportation efforts. They include New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and other cities with large immigrant populations. Sanctuary cities refuse to facilitate deportation both because city leaders believe it to be harmful and unjust, and because local law enforcement officials have concluded that it poisons community relations and undermines efforts to combat violent crime. They also recognize that mass deportation would have severe economic costs.
The arguments and links in the foregoing paragraph, of course, are policy arguments. They detail why the proposed policy is stupid, but (as I frequently remind my students) just because something is stupid and/or mean-spirited and/or counterproductive doesn’t mean it is also unconstitutional.
After listing the reasons the policy is ill-considered, however, Somin does address the question of constitutionality.
Under the Constitution, state and local governments have every right to refuse to help enforce federal law. In cases like Printz v. United States (1997) and New York v. United States (1992), the Supreme Court has ruled that the Tenth Amendment forbids federal “commandeering” of state governments to help enforce federal law. Most of the support for this anti-commandeering principle came from conservative justices such as the late Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in Printz.
But what about Trump’s threat to withhold federal funds from cities and states that refuse to help him implement his deportation program? According to Somin, while the President may be able to withhold some funds, the threat is far less “formidable” than it may seem.
Few if any federal grants to state and local governments are conditioned on cooperation with federal deportation efforts. The Supreme Court has long ruled that conditions on federal grants to state and local governments are not enforceable unless they are “unambiguously” stated in the text of the law “so that the States can knowingly decide whether or not to accept those funds.” In ambiguous cases, courts must assume that state and local governments are not required to meet the condition in question. In sum, the Trump administration can’t cut off any federal grants to sanctuary cities unless it can show that those grants were clearly conditioned on cooperation with federal deportation policies.
It’s been truly heartening to see how hobbled Trump has been by his complete ignorance of the way American government actually works. (For that matter, his obvious ignorance of the way law in general works helps to explain why he has been involved in–and lost–so many lawsuits.)
In an update to his original column, Somin highlights a “states’ rights” irony that might be filed under “be careful what you ask for.”
It is worth noting that if Congress were to pass a law stripping sanctuary cities of all their federal funding unless they help facilitate federal deportation efforts, it would be unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Obamacare Medicaid expansion in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), which forbids funding conditions so coercive that they amount to a “gun to the head” of a state or local government.
Short version: If the federal government can’t force states to expand Medicaid, neither can it force states to help deport undocumented people.