A US judge on Tuesday blocked an executive order by President Donald Trump that could deny billions of dollars to so-called sanctuary cities as punishment for harboring illegal immigrants.
Dealing a fresh setback to Trump's pledged crackdown on undocumented residents, Judge William Orrick of San Francisco's federal court issued a preliminary injunction barring any attempt to implement the January 25 executive order.
Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the president disapproves, Orrick said.
The decision -- which could impact more than 300 cities and counties that have denounced Trump's order -- is another blow to the White House following successful court challenges to its two travel bans targeting Muslim-majority countries.
Trump's order threatened the transfer of some US$1.7 billion to Santa Clara County and US$1.2 billion for San Francisco.
Santa Clara counsel James R. Williams described it as a historic affirmation of the constitutional principle that Washington cannot coerce local governments into becoming federal immigration enforcers.
Orrick noted that the government's lawyers had sought to avoid arguing the issue of whether the Trump administration had the right to take such steps.
Instead, they weakly challenged the right of San Francisco and Santa Clara County to fight the order because neither had been formally declared sanctuary jurisdictions -- a phrase that remains vague in the law.
The judge said the key issue remained Trump's repeated statements that funding is a weapon to use against cities that resist his policies. That demonstrates the government's intent, he said, and is unconstitutional.
The Constitution vests the spending powers in Congress, not the president, so the order cannot constitutionally place new conditions on federal funds, he said.