Tom Manger, Jorge Elorza, Steve Adler

New Orleans, La. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, center, flanked by Providence, R.I. Mayor Jorge Elorza, left, and Austin, Texas Mayor Steve Adler, accompanied by members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors leadership, speaks to reporters outside the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, April 25, 2017, following a meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) 

Manuel Balce Ceneta

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked a Trump administration order to withhold funding from communities that limit cooperation with U.S. immigration authorities, saying the president has no authority to attach new conditions to federal spending.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick, in San Francisco, issued the temporary ruling in a lawsuit against the executive order targeting so-called "sanctuary cities." The decision will stay in place while the lawsuit works its way through court.

Earlier in the day, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other officials representing local governments and police departments met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the issue.

The meeting provided clarity on exactly how the federal government will define the term "sanctuary city," something that has proved elusive up to this point, Mayor Jorge Elorza, of Providence, Rhode Island, said afterward. Elorza said that definition will include cities that completely bar their police from working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“If that’s the definition of 'sanctuary city,' then I don’t think there are any sanctuary cities in the United States of America,” Elorza said. “We’re using the same term, but it’s like we’re speaking different languages. Without a set definition of what a sanctuary city is, you can’t have clarity.”

New Orleans has twice found itself in the Trump administration’s cross-hairs over immigration policies. First, the city was placed on a list of communities that had not honored voluntary requests from ICE to detain suspected illegal immigrants for possible deportation proceedings.

Then last week, the Department of Justice demanded that the city certify it is not running afoul of a federal law that prohibits communities from restricting their law enforcement officers from voluntarily providing information to ICE. Otherwise, DOJ said, the city could lose grant funding.

New Orleans’ policy specifically requires compliance with that federal law, and Landrieu responded that the city had sent a letter certifying that to the Justice Department. The Landrieu administration has repeatedly denied that New Orleans is a sanctuary city.

Landrieu said the various local officials also got reassurances from the Department of Homeland Security at a meeting Monday that local law enforcement would not be forced to participate in civil deportation efforts and that raids would not be conducted in “sensitive areas” such as schools and churches.

“I think the mayors learned a lot yesterday and today how if we narrow these issues and get clarity, we can get on the same page,” Landrieu said. He added that “none of this would be necessary if Congress and the president were to enact comprehensive immigration reform, which is long overdue.”

The Trump administration and two California governments that sued over the order disagreed about its scope during a recent court hearing.

San Francisco and Santa Clara County argued that it threatened billions of dollars in federal funding for each of them, making it difficult to plan their budgets.

"It's not like it's just some small amount of money," John Keker, an attorney for Santa Clara County, told Orrick at the April 14 hearing.

However, Chad Readler, acting assistant attorney general, said the county and San Francisco were interpreting the executive order too broadly. He said the funding cutoff applies only to three Justice Department and Homeland Security Department grants that require complying with a federal law that local governments not block officials from providing people's immigration status.

The order would affect less than $1 million in funding for Santa Clara County and possibly no money for San Francisco, Readler said.

Republican President Donald Trump was using a "bully pulpit" to "encourage communities and states to comply with the law," Readler said.

In his ruling, Orrick sided with San Francisco and Santa Clara, saying the order "by its plain language, attempts to reach all federal grants, not merely the three mentioned at the hearing."

"The rest of the order is broader still, addressing all federal funding," Orrick said. "And if there was doubt about the scope of the order, the president and attorney general have erased it with their public comments."

He said: "Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the president disapproves."

The Trump administration says sanctuary cities allow dangerous criminals back on the street and that the 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 also has led to lawsuits by Seattle; two Massachusetts cities, Lawrence and Chelsea; and a third San Francisco Bay Area government, the city of Richmond. The San Francisco and Santa Clara County suits were the first to get a hearing before a judge.

San Francisco and the county argued in court documents that the president did not have the authority to set conditions on the allocation of federal funds and could not force local officials to enforce federal immigration law.

They also said Trump's order applied to local governments that didn't detain immigrants for possible deportation in response to federal requests, not just those that refused to provide people's immigration status.

The Department of Justice responded that the city and county's lawsuits were premature because decisions about withholding funds and what local governments qualified as sanctuary cities had yet to be made.

The sanctuary city order was among a flurry of immigration measures Trump has signed since taking office in January, including a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and a directive calling for a wall on the border with Mexico.

A federal appeals court blocked the travel ban. The administration then revised it, but the new version also is stalled in court.