City Solicitor Marcel Pratt, left, and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. Photo: P.J. D’Annunzio

A federal appeals court has ruled that the U.S. attorney general cannot cut off federal funding to the city of Philadelphia over its policy of noncooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in rounding up undocumented immigrants within city limits.

The ruling—which comes shortly after President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border with Mexico—stems from the city’s 2017 lawsuit against then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, arguing the Philadelphia Police Department is not an arm of immigration enforcement, and that making it one would damage community relations.

In June, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held in a 93-page ruling that Sessions could not impose requirements that the city assist in ICE roundups of undocumented immigrants as a condition of receiving about $1.6 million in federal money from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, earmarked for local law enforcement. The three requirements—that a city must provide ICE access to prisons to interview suspects, notice when undocumented immigrants are to be released from prison, and that the city is restricted from withholding a person’s citizenship status—formed the basis of Philadelphia’s lawsuit.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with Baylson’s interpretation of the law, noting that the attorney general does not have the authority to cut off federal funding.

“After reviewing the three sources of authority offered by the attorney general, we hold that Congress has not empowered the attorney general to enact the challenged conditions. Because the attorney general exceeded his statutory authority in promulgating the challenged conditions, we needn’t reach Philadelphia’s other arguments,” Senior Judge Marjorie Rendell wrote in the Third Circuit’s opinion.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney praised the ruling in a statement Friday morning.

“Philadelphia is proud to be a city that welcomes all of those who seek safe haven, and this ruling affirms our right to do so. The conditions imposed by the DOJ were an unconscionable attempt to bully the city and its residents into changing our policies. Our residents—particularly our immigrant communities—can take comfort now that two federal courts have soundly rejected these strong arm tactics,” Kenney said. “On the very day the president declared a bogus national emergency to build a useless wall, I say to our immigrant community: we are glad you call Philadelphia home, and we will continue to fight for you. Protecting our city’s welcoming policies is not only the best thing to do for our immigrants—it is the right thing to do for our great city.”

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the June ruling, Baylson said the Trump administration’s view that undocumented immigrants are significant contributors to an allegedly rising crime rate in the city was simply false. Further, Baylson called the conditions “arbitrary and capricious.”

The DOJ outlined its appeal to the Third Circuit in a brief filed in late August.

The DOJ’s 62-page filing says that the district court held a “sprawling preliminary injunction hearing and trial on immigration policy writ large,” and that it improperly limited the DOJ’s authority without a sufficient statutory basis.

“Worse still, not only does the court improperly restrain the department’s ability to impose these and other similar conditions that it has historically imposed without objection, but it did all this based on the judicial overreach of expounding on broad policy questions that were not before it and that are committed to the legislative and executive branches,” the DOJ said. “The court’s order must be set aside.”

The city was represented by a team of lawyers from Hogan Lovells including partners Neal Katyal and Virginia Gibson, and associates Jasmeet Ahuja, Alex Bowerman, Kirti Datla, and Matt Higgins.