SAN FRANCISCO • A US judge has blocked President Donald Trump's executive order that sought to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities, dealing another legal blow to his efforts to toughen immigration enforcement.
The ruling from US District Judge William Orrick III in San Francisco said Mr Trump's Jan 25 order targeted broad categories of federal funding for sanctuary governments and that plaintiffs challenging the order were likely to succeed in proving it unconstitutional.
"And if there was doubt about the scope of the order, the President and Attorney-General have erased it with their public comments," the judge wrote.
Sanctuary cities generally offer safe harbour to illegal immigrants and often do not use municipal funds or resources to advance the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Dozens of local governments and cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, have joined the growing "sanctuary" movement.
President Trump's moves on immigration have galvanised legal advocacy groups, along with Democratic city and state governments, to oppose them in court.
Mr Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff, told reporters the administration was taking action to appeal against the ruling, adding: "The idea that an agency can't put in some reasonable restrictions on how some of these monies are spent is something that will be overturned eventually."
A White House statement was withering in its criticism of Judge Orrick, saying "an unelected judge unilaterally rewrote immigration policy for our nation" and handed "a gift to the criminal gang and cartel element in our country."
"This case is yet one more example of egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge," the White House said.
The Justice Department said in a statement it would follow existing federal law with respect to sanctuary jurisdictions, as well as enforce conditions tied to federal grants.
Supporters of the sanctuary policy argue that enlisting police cooperation in rounding up immigrants for removal undermines communities' trust in local police, particularly among Latinos.
The administration contends that the local authorities endanger public safety when they decline to hand over for deportation illegal immigrants arrested for crimes.
The executive order by Mr Trump, who made cracking down on illegal immigration a cornerstone of his presidential campaign, directed such funding to be restricted once the Homeland Security Department determines what constitutes a sanctuary city.
Santa Clara county, which includes the city of San Jose and several smaller Silicon Valley communities, sued in February, saying the order was unconstitutional. San Francisco filed a similar lawsuit.
The Justice Department threatened last week to cut some funding to California as well as eight cities and counties across the US.
The department singled out Chicago and New York as two cities "crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime", even though New York City is experiencing its lowest crime levels in decades and experts say Chicago's recent spike in violent crime has little to do with illegal immigration.