President Donald Trump's executive order withholding funding from communities that limit cooperation with immigration authorities applies to a small pot of grant money, not the hundreds of millions of dollars that local governments say is at stake, a lawyer with the Department of Justice said Friday.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler made the comments during a court hearing on lawsuits filed by the city of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley county of Santa Clara against Trump's order targeting so-called sanctuary cities.
Readler said the city and county were interpreting the order too broadly.
The funding cutoff applies to DOJ and Department of Homeland Security grants contingent on compliance with a federal law that prohibits local governments from refusing to provide people's immigration status to federal authorities, he said.
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The order would affect less than $1 million in funding for Santa Clara County and possibly no money for San Francisco, Readler said.
"There is no mystery," he said.
The plaintiffs have argued that more than $1 billion was at stake for each of them.
Sarah Eisenberg, a deputy city attorney in San Francisco, disputed Readler's claim, saying the city has money at stake.
Readler's comments about the money appeared to catch U.S. District Judge William Orrick by surprise. Orrick then questioned the point of the president's executive order.
The administration was using a "bully pulpit" to highlight an issue it cares deeply about, Readler responded.
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John Keker, an attorney for Santa Clara County, rejected Readler's interpretation and said the order referred to all federal funds now received by local governments that don't detain immigrants for possible deportation when they are due for release from jail.
"They've come up with a further interpretation," Keker said. "It won't wash."
San Francisco and Santa Clara County have asked for a court order blocking the Trump administration from cutting off funds to any sanctuary cities. Orrick did not immediately issue a ruling after Friday's hearing.
Readler said the request was premature because decisions about withholding funds and what jurisdictions qualify as sanctuary cities have yet to be made.
Mollie Lee, another deputy city attorney in San Francisco, said the Trump administration has labeled San Francisco a sanctuary city in public comments, so the city had good reason to believe it was a target.
The sanctuary city order was among a flurry of immigration measures the president signed in January, including a ban on travelers from seven majority Muslim countries and a border security directive calling for a wall with Mexico.
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A federal appeals court blocked the travel ban. The administration then revised it, although the new version is also stalled in court.
The Trump administration says sanctuary cities allow dangerous criminals back on the street, and the president's order is needed to keep the country safe. San Francisco and other sanctuary cities say turning local police into immigration officers erodes trust that's needed to get people to report crime.
The order has also prompted lawsuits by Seattle, two Massachusetts cities, Lawrence and Chelsea, and a third San Francisco Bay Area government, the City of Richmond, though none of those cases has received a court hearing yet.
San Francisco, the first city to challenge the order in court, said in court documents that the president does not have authority over federal funds and cannot force local officials to enforce federal immigration law.