A federal judge declared from the bench Thursday that the City of Philadelphia — a so-called sanctuary city — substantially complies with the Trump administration's conditions for receiving a government law enforcement grant.
U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson made no formal ruling in a case that has been widely watched and debated, and indicated he would not issue a decision for two weeks. But after pressing administration lawyers with question after question, Baylson said he believed that "the city is in substantial compliance" and that a Justice Department letter asserting otherwise "is wrong."
At the heart of the case is a relatively small amount of money — a $1.5 million federal grant to a city with a $4.4 billion budget — but a big principle: whether the administration can withhold money unless the city agrees to more actively help federal agents identify and arrest people who immigrated without appropriate documents.
The city filed suit against Attorney General Jeff Sessions in August.
Broadly defined, a sanctuary city limits its cooperation with federal authorities who enforce immigration law. Those cities' leaders aim to ease fears of deportation among undocumented residents, believing that members of immigrant communities will then be more willing to report crime.
President Trump and Sessions have argued that sanctuary city policies allow dangerous criminals to be released to prey on local neighborhoods when instead they should be returned to their homelands. The administration aims to withhold grant money as a means to make cities assist federal agents seeking to deport undocumented immigrants.
Baylson heard a day of testimony last week and a half-day of arguments Thursday, and continues to review a voluminous written record.
"I think he's leaning toward us," said lawyer Sara Solow, retained to help represent the city in the case.
Barring appeals, that would clear the way for the city to receive the federal money for police overtime, training, and other improvements.
City officials testified that they willingly turn over information about undocumented people who have been convicted or are actively under suspicion of committing a serious crime.
"Isn't that all you're entitled to?" the judge asked Chad Readler, the administration's acting assistant attorney general for the civil division.
If federal agents were willing to accept that without demanding information on every person about whom they inquire, "we wouldn't be here," Baylson told Readler.
Readler declined to comment after the hearing.
In court, he argued that the case was simple: The government has the power and right to set conditions on grants. The city has the option of meeting those terms and getting the money.
"If they want to keep a policy that's different from the federal policy, don't accept the grant," Readler said.
In July, Sessions added two more requirements for cities wishing to receive law enforcement grants: When requested by officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, cities must give agents two days' notice before releasing undocumented inmates from custody. In addition, they must allow ICE agents to enter any detention facility to question immigrants about their right to be or stay in the United States.
Readler contended that ICE was not getting all the information it needed from Philadelphia.
City officials testified that both they and ICE authorities have access to the same law enforcement databases — and that local police are not agents of the U.S. government.
They testified that it is impossible for them to provide advance notice of an inmate's release, because those dates are unknown. The vast majority of prisoners in city jails haven't been convicted of anything — they're awaiting trial, and could be released at any time by posting bail or by judicial order.