Donald Trump’s best-known campaign promise on immigration — the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — is embedded in the country’s collective memory at this point.
But the President-elect repeatedly made another promise, one marginally more feasible than building a wall and making Mexico pay for it: punishing so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions by denying them federal funds.
There is not a single definition of a sanctuary jurisdiction, but it applies to states, cities, and counties that have indicated they will not do the work of federal immigration authorities, or even ask individuals about their immigration status.
The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, are sanctuary jurisdictions. Could Trump really follow through on his defunding threat — and if he does, what would it mean for Minnesota’s sanctuary jurisdictions?
Cancelling ‘all funds’ a tough task
Taking action against sanctuary jurisdictions has become a popular idea within the Republican Party, but Trump elevated it into a central talking point on the campaign trail.
Trump, and many of his GOP primary rivals, singled out sanctuary cities as a significant public safety problem. (Local leaders like Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges disagree, saying that enforcing federal immigration law would hamstring local cops’ ability to serve the community.)
In his “Contract with the American Voter,” effectively a plan for the first 100 days of his presidency, Trump pledges to “cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities.”
But shutting off the flow of federal cash to sanctuary jurisdictions would be a complicated and difficult task.
There are a few ways the Trump administration could go about it: namely, through executive action and legislation. Both would be fraught with constitutional questions and congressional logistics, and could very well end up hurting Trump more than helping him.
Executive action would be easier, procedurally speaking. Certain U.S. Department of Justice grants are contingent upon local jurisdictions complying with federal law on immigration — particularly, a 1996 statute that prevents them from restricting feds’ access to information on an individual’s immigration status.
Trump could simply direct his DOJ to halt those grants, which include the $280 million Justice Assistant Grant program, for sanctuary jurisdictions, wrote Luca Marzorati at the Brookings Institute.
This would be a narrowly-focused punishment, but it would deprive local law enforcement agencies of funds important to their operations.
But a DOJ-targeted executive action could also be politically problematic for Trump, as it would single out and disproportionately hurt law enforcement — a constituency with which he has made a point to maintain good relations.
Congress, of course, has more flexibility, and with Trump in the White House lawmakers would have fewer hurdles to pass legislation defunding programs in sanctuary cities.
In June, several Republican senators, led by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced a bill called the “Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act.” It proposed depriving sanctuary jurisdictions from participation in some federal funds, like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.
That program, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development since 1972, is a flexible grant that funds affordable housing and anti-poverty programs in communities.
It’s unlikely such a bill would make it through the Senate, where 60 votes would be a tough ask. The Toomey-Cruz bill was put to a vote in July, and fell seven votes short of the threshold needed to advance.
It’s also possible that the legislation, if it passed, could be threatened by a strong legal challenge. Several recent Supreme Court decisions affirm the notion that the federal government can’t use fiscal pressure to compel localities to cooperate with the federal government.
What it means for sanctuary budgets
Suppose that Trump and/or Congress successfully denies some federal funding to sanctuary jurisdictions, either through executive order or legislation.
It could have significant impact on Minnesota’s sanctuary jurisdictions, for whom federal funding is crucial toward administering certain programs.
Two percent of Minneapolis’ $1.3 billion budget, or $26 million, is made up of federal funds. The most significant federally funded projects, city officials say, are affordable housing programs.
Of St. Paul’s $548 million budget, 16.2 percent, or $93.2 million, is paid for with combined state and federal government funds. ($62.3 million of that is earmarked as “local government aid” from the state of Minnesota.)
Washington kicked in $6.4 million of Community Development Block Grant funding for St. Paul — the very program targeted by the GOP senators in their sanctuary bill — in fiscal year 2016.
In its 2016 budget, Hennepin County received $195.7 million from the federal government out of its total $1.93 billion budget. Much of that goes toward public health and nutrition programs. Of Ramsey County’s $660 million 2016 budget, federal funds account for $89.5 million, or 13.6 percent.
Local officials are most concerned about any efforts to deprive sanctuary jurisdictions of the CDBG funding, a reliable source of cash for important projects that provides welcome stability for long-term budget planning.
Minneapolis got $12.5 million in 2016 through the program, much of which goes toward funding affordable city housing and programs to support at-risk youth and vocational training.
If that grant were to suddenly be cut, the city government would be presented with some serious choices, says Mark Ruff, Minneapolis’ Chief Financial Officer — none of them good.
“If we don’t have federal resources, we have to cut that particular program, take the money from somewhere else, or raise taxes. Those are highly visible and highly impactful programs,” he says.
“It’d be difficult choices for the mayor and the City Council to make among those three for those programs, or we go to the county or state for funds, which is a fourth alternative.”
Law enforcement funding
If Trump targets federal law enforcement funding, Minneapolis stands to lose over $2 million. But officials say the particular DOJ grants that Trump threatens are less important, and less consistently needed, in Minneapolis than elsewhere.
Funding sources like the Justice Assistance Grant are useful from time to time, says Ruff. Recently, JAG funds provided body cameras for Minneapolis police officers.
“For us,” he adds, DOJ money “is not a major source of funding for our programs.”
Minneapolis officials acknowledge that Trump’s sanctuary city rhetoric has injected a new degree of uncertainty into their budget planning. But they cautioned Minneapolis residents to not panic and to wait until more details are released on the administration’s policy.
Gene Ranieri, Minneapolis’ Direct or of Intergovernmental Relations, says “It’s really hard to explain to a resident what the impact is going to be when you really don’t know. The President-elect started off in August saying I’m going to do ‘x’ on immigration, and all of a sudden he’s getting more toward the center.”
Ruff says that Minneapolis has six to eight months to plan for any action from the Trump administration or Congress, as the city typically unveils its budget in August. Congress will need to pass legislation funding the federal government in April.
“Until we get the specific language, it’s hard to react hypothetically,” Ruff said. “There’s a great deal of anxiety about what this administration may bring, and we want to see what reality will bring instead of just the anxiety.”