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Immigration Attorney, SU Professor Question Legality of Punishing "Sanctuary Cities"

Scott Willis

A Syracuse immigration attorney and a political science professor specializing in immigration have serious doubts about the legality of President Trump’s moves to punish “sanctuary cities” by withholding federal funding.  Syracuse and New York City are among those that could be affected.  Lawyer Jose Perez says his phone has been ringing almost non-stop since trump won the election.

"Panic.  If you asked me for one word, it would be panic," Perez said.  "Everybody who has something to lose in immigration has called me."

Perez says he’s even had to calm legal citizens worried about what might happen.  

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has affirmed Syracuse a sanctuary city, meaning police will not collect or share information that might be used to enforce federal immigration policies. 

"Those are things that will protect individuals at risk because of the inability of the federal government to get that information," Perez said.  "It's really important."

Syracuse University  Associate political science professor Elizabeth Cohen says it sends a message to immigrants that they’re welcome and supported equally.

SU Associate Professor of Political Science Elizabeth F. Cohen.

"Just the statement of solidarity is really significant," Cohen said.  "It's also going to reap rewards for communities because the possibility of losing substantial portions of the community...many people may be  extremely well integrated into the economy, into neighborhoods, into schools.  The idea that those people could be ripped out of communities would be a really significant loss."

Cohen says it’s not hard to imagine the republican controlled congress going along with a plan to withhold funding from cities that don’t cooperate.

"But they don't have unlimited powers to do that," Cohen said.  "In fact, there's Supreme Court precedent that indicates the power Congress has to withhold money is very much tied to the purpose that the withholding is predicated on.  One of the standards that must be met is that the withholding of funds needs to be connected to something that falls under the definition of general welfare."

For example, Cohen says it would be  difficult to prove that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes or are a drain on budgets.  She predicts courts will be busy.

"A lot of the actions Trump is threatening to take will need to be tested in the courts," Cohen said.  "If I were mayor,  I would be strategizing about what comes next.  I know there are a lot of people in the legal community who are gearing up for a fight."

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at