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The Trump administration’s efforts to defund “sanctuary cities” just suffered a major setback

Stop me if you've heard this before: A federal judge says a Trump immigration proposal might be unconstitutional.

Donald Trump looking a little sad

Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Getty Images

Before President Trump arrived in office, he promised to strip all federal funding from “sanctuary cities” — cities that didn’t do enough, in his estimation, to help the federal government enforce immigration law — in his first 100 days in office.

The Trump administration is on the cusp of blowing that deadline. And now a federal court ruling threatens to thwart it from carrying out that defunding threat at all.

A ruling issued Tuesday by Judge William H. Orrick of the Northern District of California, in a lawsuit filed by cities that worried they’d be targeted as “sanctuaries,” stops the Trump administration from doing anything that would keep cities from getting federal funding based on their local policies on immigration enforcement. (The ruling is a preliminary injunction, which means the Trump administration can’t go forward with any defunding efforts based on “sanctuary” policies until the courts have had a full chance to consider whether the administration would violate the Constitution by doing so.)

The thing to understand about Judge Orrick’s ruling is that it doesn’t apply to anything the Trump administration has actually done so far. But so far, the Trump administration hasn’t really done anything that would threaten even the most progressive cities’ funding. What the ruling does is prevent the administration from taking more aggressive action down the road — essentially, preventing the administration from putting its money where its mouth is.

The Trump administration’s “sanctuary city” efforts have been moving on two tracks — and the courts just blocked one of them

Orrick’s ruling targets a clause in an executive order Trump signed in the first week of his presidency, which tells the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security to “ensure” that “sanctuary jurisdictions” don’t get federal grants.

But the Trump administration hadn’t really started enforcing that yet. Instead, it had put its anti-”sanctuary” campaign on two tracks.

The first track, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has advanced fairly quickly but isn’t likely to do much. It involves forcing cities to document that they comply with information-sharing laws in order to qualify for federal grants going forward — but the cities in question argue that they do comply with that law. Essentially, Sessions’s definition of “sanctuary” is so narrow that it doesn’t appear to do anything.

The second track threatened to change that. While Sessions’s department started asking cities about the federal law, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security were reportedly working on a broader definition of “sanctuary cities” that would apply to more grants.

Most people understand “sanctuary cities” to refer to places where local police limit their cooperation with federal immigration agents, especially when it comes to holding immigrants in jail longer than they’d otherwise be there so that federal agents can pick them up.

There’s no official list of which cities count as “sanctuaries” under this definition, or, for that matter, how much a city would have to limit its cooperation to count as a “sanctuary.” Furthermore, though, these are matters of local policy — and the Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government doesn’t usually get to use grant money to pressure local and state governments into changing their policies.

Judge Orrick issued the injunction Tuesday because, as he sees it, it’s likely that withholding grant money based on a designation of “sanctuary” status — above and beyond the requirements cities already have to comply with the federal information-sharing law — would count as unconstitutional “commandeering.”

His ruling allows the government to keep enforcing the federal information-sharing law and existing conditions of federal grants — which is to say, it allows them to do the toothless stuff they’re already doing. It prevents them from making any decisions about grant money based on a definition of “sanctuary” that is any broader than simply “actively violates existing federal law.”

The Trump administration is nearly guaranteed to rail against the order — they tend to be displeased when a ruling from a single judge forces them to stop a policy nationwide, and even more so when that judge is in what administration officials call “the very, very liberal Ninth Circuit.”

But it’s important to remember that the administration has pursued a strategy that allows them to claim they’re taking action against “sanctuary cities” without really changing existing federal policy. If they didn’t anticipate something like this was going to happen, sooner or later, to prevent the government from carrying out President Trump’s overambitious first-100-days promise, they must have been very lucky to stumble on a strategy that would allow them to claim they were doing something without really doing much at all.