Trump Administration Wins Sanctuary Cities Case in Appeals Court

By Mimi Nguyen Ly
Mimi Nguyen Ly
Mimi Nguyen Ly
Mimi Nguyen Ly is a reporter based in Australia. She covers world news with a focus on U.S. news. She holds a Bachelor's degree in optometry and vision science from the University of New South Wales. Contact her at
July 13, 2019 Updated: July 13, 2019

The Department of Justice under the Trump administration secured a victory in a federal appeals court on a sanctuary cities-related case, which concerns how the DOJ awards a specific type of grant money to cities to hire more police officers.

The Ninth Circuit of Appeals court, in a 2-1 decision on July 12 (pdf), ruled that the DOJ can put more priority toward approving applications for grant money that’s under the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to cities that are willing to cooperate with federal efforts to remove illegal immigrants from the country.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that the ruling “reverses a lawless decision that enabled sanctuary city policies,” referring to a nationwide injunction (pdf) that a federal judge issued in April 2018. The injunction was issued after Los Angeles, widely recognized as a sanctuary city, sued the DOJ.

“Sanctuary cities knowingly release criminal aliens out of their jails and back into our communities, instead of cooperating with ICE to ensure they are kept in custody and safely removed from the United States,” Grisham said in her statement. “Many innocent Americans are injured, maimed, or killed as a result of sanctuary city policies.”

“This ruling upholds the right of the Department of Justice to ensure discretionary grants under its control are not being used to subsidize these jurisdictions’ open assault on law-abiding Americans and their loved ones,” she said.

Sanctuary cities are locales that have enacted measures to prevent local officials from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Eight states and hundreds of cities across the United States are recognized as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants.

In a statement following the ruling, the DOJ wrote: “The department is pleased that the court recognized the lawful authority of the administration to provide favorable treatment when awarding discretionary law enforcement grants to jurisdictions that assist in enforcing federal immigration laws.”

President Donald Trump is a firm critic of sanctuary cities. He had earlier said that he was considering a plan to transport illegal immigrants who are apprehended after illegally crossing the southwest border exclusively to sanctuary cities.

The Trump administration proposed a new rule in April that would prevent illegal immigrants from being granted public housing financial assistance, and ensure that U.S. citizens are first in line to review housing subsidies.

Los Angeles Sued the DOJ

Congress created the COPS program in 1994 to help state and local law enforcement increase the number of “cops on the beat” and to improve police officers’ interactions with their communities. The DOJ was given the authority to allot the annual federal grants.

The latest July 12 decision reverses a nationwide injunction that a federal judge issued in April 2018, which said that the DOJ cannot factor policies related to sanctuary cities in how it decides to award policing grants.

The injunction was prompted by a lawsuit that Los Angeles launched after it was denied a DOJ grant of $3 million under the COPS program for the fiscal year of 2017. The city had been receiving about $1 million in such grants each year.

In 2017, the DOJ introduced new incentives, announcing that to determine scores for grant applicants, extra points would be given to cities that list illegal immigration as an area of focus. The DOJ said it would also give additional points to cities that agree to the “Certification of Illegal Immigration Cooperation.”

Under such certification, a city would cooperate with immigration authorities in two ways. First, by allowing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to access the city’s jails to meet with an illegal immigrant; and second, by giving notice to the DHS 48 hours ahead of when an illegal immigrant is scheduled to be released from custody.

Los Angeles did not choose illegal immigration as a focus area, nor did it agree to the certification.

In suing the DOJ, the city said that the DOJ’s newly introduced incentives that year had coerced Los Angeles to enforce federal immigration law.

The city also said that such immigration-related criteria were not related to the goal of the grant program. As such, they claimed, the DOJ violated the “Spending Clause,” which states that the actions of the grant authority must be “reasonably related” to the goal of the grant program.

Los Angeles also alleged that the DOJ had overstepped its authority in introducing the two new immigration-focused incentives.

On July 12, Judge Sandra Ikuta of the appeals court wrote for the majority (pdf) that the “DOJ’s scoring factors encouraged, but did not coerce, an applicant to cooperate on immigration matters” and therefore did not infringe on state autonomy “in a manner that raised Tenth Amendment concerns.”

Ikuta also wrote that “the panel rejected Los Angeles’s argument that DOJ’s practice of giving additional consideration to applicants that choose to further the two specified federal goals violated the Constitution’s Spending Clause.”

“The panel held that DOJ did not exceed its statutory authority in awarding bonus points to applicants that selected the illegal immigration focus area or that agreed to the Certification,” she wrote, providing three points to justify her stance.

“Specifically, the panel first held that DOJ’s understanding that illegal immigration presents a public safety issue has been acknowledged by the Supreme Court.

“Second, DOJ’s determination that the techniques of community policing may be used to address this public safety issue was entirely reasonable,” she added. “Finally, because Congress did not directly address the precise question at issue, the panel must defer to DOJ’s interpretation as long as it is reasonable.”

Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote in dissent and called the DOJ’s immigration-focused incentives “Orwellian.”

“The majority goes astray by finding no meaning in Congress’s use of the term ‘community-oriented policing’ and then deferring under Chevron to DOJ’s Orwellian effort to define ‘community-oriented policing’ to include ‘partnering with federal law enforcement to address illegal immigration,’” she wrote.

“Congress did not authorize COPS grants for anything other than placing additional state and local cops on the beat and promote community partnerships,” she added.

“Nothing in the congressional record nor the act itself remotely mentions immigration or immigration enforcement as a goal,” she wrote. “In the quarter-century of the act’s existence, Congress has not once denoted civil immigration enforcement as a proper purpose for COPS grants.”

But Ikuta noted in the majority ruling that “cooperation relating to [the] enforcement of federal immigration law is in pursuit of the general welfare, and meets the low bar of being germane to the federal interest in providing the funding to ‘address crime and disorder problems, and otherwise … enhance public safety.'” She noted that this meets one of the main purposes of the COPS grants.

She also noted in the majority ruling that some other jurisdictions won COPS grants without having agreed to the DOJ’s immigration-focused incentives.

A Preventable Crime

Sanctuary cities shield illegal immigrants from deportation by prohibiting state law enforcement from cooperating with federal agencies like ICE. If an illegal alien is arrested or convicted of a crime and ICE requests custody of them, sanctuary policies prevent law enforcement from honoring the request.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who signed into law a bill banning sanctuary cities in the state on June 15 said, according to The Associated Press, “Sanctuary cities basically create law-free zones where people can come to our state illegally and our country illegally, commit criminal offenses and then just walk right out the door and continue to do it.”

In New York City, a sanctuary city, the policy has led to serious problems.

In February an MS-13 gang member allegedly shot a man multiple times, killing him in broad daylight on a subway platform. It was later revealed that Ramiro Gutierrez was in the country illegally.

Gutierrez was arrested in December 2018, on felony conspiracy charges, after which he was released on $2,500 bail, according to the New York Post. Lawyers and federal agents said that the Department of Corrections knew that he was an illegal immigrant, yet they did not contact ICE, nor was his immigration status made available while he was detained.

In another example, ICE arrested over 200 people during Operation Keep Safe in New York for violating immigration laws, stated ICE in a press release.

Over 60 of those arrested had been previously released by local authorities after ICE had requested custody of them. Among those captured, many were convicted of felonious offenses, such as child sex crimes, assault, and weapons charges.

“The fact is that a so-called ‘sanctuary city’ does not only provide refuge to those who are here against immigration law, but also provides protections for criminal aliens who prey on the people in their own communities by committing crimes at all level,” said Thomas R. Decker, an official for ICE, in the release.

Bowen Xiao and Miguel Moreno contributed to this report.

Mimi Nguyen Ly
Mimi Nguyen Ly
Mimi Nguyen Ly is a reporter based in Australia. She covers world news with a focus on U.S. news. She holds a Bachelor's degree in optometry and vision science from the University of New South Wales. Contact her at