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Donald Trump, Sanctuary Cities, and Federal Funds

Sanctuary cities have been in the news a great deal ever since Donald Trump became President of the United States. One of Trump’s positions is that cities should not give sanctuary to those in the United States illegally (i.e. sanctuary cities). Those cities who insist on doing so, according to Trump, will no longer receive money from the federal government. In some situations, the federal government provides such huge amounts of money to local governments that cities can’t help but pay attention to Trump’s threat.

Regardless of how you feel about politics, this brings up the legal question of whether such a threat actually has any teeth. In other words, could Trump withhold possibly substantial amounts of federal money as a way of forcing cities to no longer be sanctuaries?

Assuming Trump does try to follow through with his threat, a lot will depend on the way in which funds are withheld. This is not specific or unique to Trump or to sanctuary cities. When it comes to the law, the “how” is always going to be very important. If we look past the “how”, however, one obstacle that Trump may run in to in withholding federal funds from sanctuary cities is a concept in Constitutional Law called the Anti-Commandeering Doctrine.

In a nutshell, the Anti-Commandeering Doctrine places limits on the degree to which the federal government can force the states to undertake a particular course of action. This blog post is not meant to be a full and complete discussing on the Anti-Commandeering Doctrine. I only mean to bring up the term so that, if you’re interested, you can do further research on it yourself.

To help you in that research, I would recommend the following United States Supreme Court cases as a place to begin your research. The links are to the opinions on Google Scholar.

  • New York v. United States (1992) 505 US 144. This case involves the handling of low level radioactive waste and a specific provision of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Police Amendments Act of 1985 which forced states to take title and possession of said waste and, in the event the state fails to do so promptly, to be liable for the resulting damages.
  • Printz v. United States (1997) 521 US 898. This case involves the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and whether it can force state and local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on prospective firearms purchasers in the interim between the passage of the Act and the time a federal background check system could be up and running.
  • National League of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius (2012) 132 S. Ct. 2566. This case involves the question of whether the Federal Government can cut off all of a state’s Medicaid funds if that state refuses to make more people eligible for Medicaid as the Affordable Care Act dictates.

If you’ve never done legal research before, you may be surprised at how long these cases are and these cases do not involve sanctuary cities at all. Even though the facts in each case are different, the underlying legal question is the same and that is what matter. If you haven’t done legal research before, you may be surprised to find out that there is often no single court case or statute that tells you exactly what you need to know.¬†When it comes to court cases, you generally have to read several of them. Each one adds a bit of information and, when read together, all the cases tell you the complete story.

Sometimes, court cases help tell you the complete story by giving you a counter-example. When it comes to the Anti-Commandeering Doctrine, I would submit that the South Dakota v. Dole case below is such a counter-example.

  • South Dakota v. Dole (1987) 483 US 203. This case involved whether the Federal Government had the ability to force South Dakota to raise its drinking age from 19 to 21 by withholding federal money meant for highways. Unlike the New York, Printz, and National League of Independent Business cases above, the US Supreme Court here said that Congress could withhold such funds. One of the factors found important was that if South Dakota insisted on keeping its drinking age at 19, it would only lose 5% of the highway funds it would otherwise obtain.


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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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