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From Pennsylvania, a Preview of How Trump & Co. Might Bully Cities

11:24 AM EST on December 5, 2016

How much will cities be threatened by the impending Trump presidency? An early front in this confrontation concerns immigration.

Withholding Community Development Block Grants from from sanctuary cities would devastate organizations like Philadelphia's North Fifth Street Revitalization Project. Photo:
Withholding Community Development Block Grants from from sanctuary cities would devastate organizations like Philadelphia's North Fifth Street Revitalization Project. Photo: Plan Philly

Trump has threatened to revoke federal funds from hundreds of "sanctuary cities" that do not report undocumented immigrants to federal officials.

Jake Blumgart at Plan Philly reports that Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey has already embraced the spirit of Trump's proposal, calling for the feds to withhold Philadelphia's Community Development Block Grants because of its sanctuary city policies:

The CDBG program is a flexible financial assistance program for economically distressed jurisdictions. In Philadelphia, it supports a diverse array of more than 20 programs, from financial counseling to help families access Earned Income Tax Credits to security deposit assistance for homeless families..

A quarter of the funding supports economic development initiatives like those that [Philip] Green’s North 5th Street organization utilizes. For commercial corridor support organizations in neighborhoods like Olney, and for community development corporations more broadly, CDBG are an essential source of support.

CDBG pays for about 20 commercial corridor managers like Green across the city, full time professionals with the responsibility of tending to fading mercantile districts in poor and working class neighborhoods. But there are more than 200 commercial corridors in Philadelphia, 60 of which are targeted for improvement by the city as funding becomes available.

CDBG still pops up in all sorts of interesting places, if not as many as it used to. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society gets well over $700,000 from it to beautify and stabilize vacant lots in the city. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation gets a million dollars to issue business loans in low-income neighborhoods. YouthBuild Philadelphia, which provides job training in the building trades to high school dropouts, gets $300,000, while Neighborhood Advisory Committees get over $1.4 million.

If Senator Toomey gets his way, all of this would vaporize.  Such an effort would dovetail with President-Elect Trump’s stated desire to “cancel all federal funding to Sanctuary Cities” on his first day in office.

But some legal scholars say that Toomey’s bill could be unconstitutional. In a law review published this summer, Yale Law School’s Spencer E. Amdur argued that federal grants related to immigration, and perhaps law enforcement as well, could be revoked to punish a sanctuary city for refusing to cooperate with federal immigration detention requests. But Community Development Block Grants have nothing to do with immigration or law enforcement, Amdur argues, so denying CDBG funds to penalize sanctuary cities would amount to an unconstitutional expansion of the federal power over states and municipalities. That principle of federalism was upheld by the Supreme Court most recently in a case limiting the Medicaid rollout portion of Obamacare, and was articulated most forcibly by the late, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.   Other legal scholars have made similar arguments of late.

According to Seth F. Kreimer, professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School, the subject remains unsettled. Much will depend on the Supreme Court, and the question is especially muddled because it is unclear whom Trump will nominate to replace Scalia.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The League of American Bicyclists looks at how Davis, California, became one of America's most bikeable cities. And Walkable West Palm Beach makes the case for leading pedestrian intervals.

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