The Trump Administration’s proposed budget, which was released earlier this week, was more of a wish list than a policy blueprint.
The proposal was distinguished by its call for deep cuts to the social safety net. But the document wasn’t all cuts: it included a significant boost in spending on immigration enforcement. A hundred million dollars is earmarked for Border Patrol; a hundred and eighty-five million dollars for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to hire hundreds of new agents; $1.2 billion for ICE to expand its detention facilities; and another hundred and thirty-one million dollars to institute a mandatory program for employers to run immigration background checks on potential hires.
In an appendix buried on page five hundred and forty-four of the budget, the Administration also proposed changing a law so that the government could withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities, places where local law enforcement resists coöperating with federal immigration authorities. Just how much leeway a sanctuary city actually has to ignore federal requests—and how far the federal government can go to pressure local officials into coöperating—has never been settled in court or by Congress. But if the change proposed in the President’s budget were to be enacted, the government would gain significant new leverage over local officials.
The Administration’s ultimate goal is to force local authorities to hold people whom they’ve arrested but not charged with a crime for an extended period, so that ICE agents have time to cross-check whether an individual has legal status to be in the country. Such a hold is known as a detainer request, and local officials argue that these requests hurt their efforts to build trust with immigrant communities. At the moment, however, there’s not much the government can do if a sanctuary city declines to honor detainer requests. The language proposed in the budget would change that: it inserts the concept of detainer requests into the federal law that defines how local officials must coöperate with the federal government. And if a city failed to detain undocumented immigrants on behalf of the government, it would risk having its federal funding cut off.
There are two ways to look at this proposal. On one hand, it’s an acknowledgement from the Administration that, under current law, it cannot penalize sanctuary cities. (This is a departure of sorts. In January, the President issued an executive order that threatened to withhold federal money from sanctuary jurisdictions—only to have that order blocked in federal court.) On the other hand, the budget is proof that the Administration is not backing down from its fight with these cities. “This section of the budget would completely rewrite federal law,” Philip Wolgin, an immigration-policy expert at the Center for American Progress, told me.
Whether or not this budget has a chance of passing, its message won’t be lost on the many conservative state lawmakers who have been taking cues on immigration policy from the new Administration. Earlier this month, the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, signed a draconian new law that bans sanctuary cities from the state outright. The measure requires local governments and law enforcement to follow all federal immigration requests, and institutes criminal penalties for those who do not comply. Anti-sanctuary-city bills have been proposed in nine other states, including Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Florida.
Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, a sanctuary city that’s been at the center of the national—and now state—drama, told me that the language in the budget appendix mirrors the language of the new Texas law. Trump’s January executive order, he said, helped galvanize Republican support for the state law, and federal hostility to local power framed the terms of the debate. “Because of all the national background noise, it took a while for it to become clear that we weren’t ever violating any federal law,” he said. “ ‘Sanctuary city’ became a code word for cities that were somehow not protecting citizens from immigrant criminals.”
While this Administration, in its early going, has been mired in scandal and waylaid on several of its policy priorities, the President has been successful in ramping up immigration enforcement and giving cover to anti-immigrant policymakers, at all levels of government, who in the past had been relegated to the political fringes. ICE arrests are on the rise, and the culture and conduct of immigration-enforcement agents at ICE and Border Patrol, tempered under the Obama Administration, are shifting. According to Cecilia Muñoz, who served as the director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House, the budget language on sanctuary cities signals that the Trump Administration is determined to move forward with its immigration agenda. “Sadly, the impact of their actions—indeed, the impact of them having this debate in the first place, is to scare the community away from civic authorities,” she said. “That undermines the very safety and security the Administration purports to be promoting.”