Appeals court in San Francisco hears sanctuary city arguments; can Trump withhold federal funds?

A U.S. Department of Justice lawyer asked a federal appeals court in San Francisco today to reinstate President Donald Trump's executive order restricting federal funding to sanctuary cities and counties.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler argued before a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the order could be found constitutional if interpreted narrowly.

"At every turn, the order states it should be interpreted 'consistent with law,'" Readler told a three-judge panel.

Trump issued the order concerning cities and counties deemed to be sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants on Jan. 25, 2017, five days after taking office.

Among other provisions, it says "sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States."

The order says federal policy is to "ensure that jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable federal law do not receive federal funds, except as mandated by law."

The order has been blocked for the past year by injunctions issued by U.S. District Judge William Orrick of San Francisco, acting on lawsuits filed by San Francisco and Santa Clara County.

Orrick said in a preliminary injunction last April and a permanent injunction in November that the order was unconstitutional because it intruded on Congress's exclusive power to determine federal spending.

He also said the "plain language" of the order threatens all federal funding for cities and counties deemed to be sanctuary jurisdictions, rather than a just a small number of law enforcement grants, as contended by the Department of Justice.

The panel took the government's appeal of Orrick's ruling under submission after hearing 40 minutes of arguments and will issue a written ruling at a later date.

Readler argued the order should be interpreted to apply only to the law enforcement grants and only to violations of one federal law, which bars local governments from prohibiting employees from communicating with federal officials about individuals' immigration status.

He also contended that even if the court upholds part of Orrick's ruling, there is no need for a nationwide rather than local injunction.

Chief Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas asked Readler about the significance of statements by Trump and the White House press office that appear to say that all federal funding for sanctuary cities could be 

"The order has to be judged by its terms, not by public statements," Readler responded.

San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Christine Van Aken told the judges, "This executive order is simply not susceptible to the gloss the Department of Justice has placed on it.

"We shouldn't be required to simply trust the federal government on this," she said.

Deputy Santa Clara County Counsel Danielle Goldstein said the order caused sanctuary cities and counties to either "risk financial ruin" or abandon their lawmakers' policies on undocumented immigrants. 

"The order was expected and intended to cause that kind of coercion," she argued.

County Counsel James Williams said in a statement after the hearing that Santa Clara County was at risk of losing about $1.7 billion in federal funds -- nearly 35 percent of its annual revenue -- for services such as emergency medical care, mental health services, public safety, and basic food and nutrition programs.

"President Trump cannot use federal funding as a weapon to force local governments to participate in the federal government's immigration enforcement efforts," Williams said.

San Francisco has told the court in a filing that it expects to receive about $1 billion in federal grants and another $1 billion in annual entitlement funds in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera said after the hearing, "San Francisco follows immigration law. The federal government has always been free to enforce immigration law in San Francisco ... The federal government knows who is in our jails. If they think someone is dangerous, all they need 
is a criminal warrant."

Watch: Sanctuary city arguments