Will immigration policy be Trump’s leverage over New York?

President Trump during the coronavirus update briefing on April 27th.
President Trump during the coronavirus update briefing on April 27th.
Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks
President Trump during the coronavirus update briefing on April 27th.

Will immigration policy be Trump’s leverage over New York?

Trump repeatedly turns to immigration policies as bargaining chips with New York.
May 1, 2020

What would it take for President Donald Trump to deliver aid to states devastated by the coronavirus? Perhaps more cooperation on immigration enforcement.

Earlier this week, the president suggested that a federal COVID-19 bailout for states could be contingent upon states abandoning “sanctuary city” policies that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. “I think there's a big difference with a state that lost money because of covid and a state that's been run very badly for 25 years,” he said at a meeting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday. “We’d have to talk about things like sanctuary cities, as an example. I think sanctuary cities is something that has to be brought up where people who are criminals are protected, they are protected from prosecution.” 

The threat to deny aid to some of the hardest-hit states such as New York, its neighbors in the Northeast and counterparts on the West Coast is not the first time the president has used the resources of the federal government to punish New York for not sharing his anti-immigration ideology. Earlier this year, Trump, through the Department of Homeland Security, banned New York residents from using Trusted Traveler Programs – a move attributed to the state’s passage of the Green Light Law, which allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and which keeps the Department of Motor Vehicles sharing records with the federal government to protect their identities. But just a week earlier, Cuomo had been celebrating Trump’s statements that he supported aid to states in the next round of federal coronavirus relief. 

One immigration advocacy group suggested Trump’s sanctuary city comments were just another attempt to rile up his base and win the news cycle amid criticism of his leadership during the pandemic. “Whenever it backfires on him, he always goes into his anti-immigrant grab bag of attacks to distract and spin,” said Murad Awawdeh, the executive vice president of advocacy and strategy at the New York Immigration Coalition. “He’s looking for a way to avoid the fallout that’s happening with his complete and utter failure with how he’s handled the global pandemic that we’re all facing right now. And at the same time, he’s trying to play politics with the lives of New Yorkers.”

Just a few days earlier, Trump came under withering derision after his baseless, dangerous musings that common household disinfectants might be used inside the human body to fight the coronavirus. “This is another ploy to really get folks to forget how insane he’s been,” Awawdeh said. 

While Trump’s comments about sanctuary cities on Tuesday weren’t explicitly directed at New York or Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York is the state with by far the most per capita cases of coronavirus, and Cuomo is arguably making more noise than any other state officials across the country about the need for aid to states to pay for services amidst the extra costs and economic contraction caused by the virus. New York faces an estimated $13 billion budget deficit, and Cuomo has lashed out at some lawmakers who push back on the notion that states should receive a federal bailout.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week suggested that the states in need of aid be left to declare bankruptcy, though he has since walked those comments back a bit. Meanwhile, Cuomo has chastised DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida for suggesting that “poorly run” states like New York shouldn’t be bailed out with federal funds. Scott cited concern that federal aid would be used for the state’s pension fund, and suggested Florida taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for bailing out New York.

On Wednesday, Cuomo fired back. “They’re not bailing us out,” Cuomo said of Florida. “We bail them out every year.”

Cuomo has yet to respond directly to Trump’s comments about sanctuary cities. And whether aid for states would actually come down to bargaining over immigration policy, or the threat will turn out to be an empty one, is unclear. But it’s nonetheless possible that as talks continue on another federal stimulus bill, Trump will return to sanctuary city or other immigration policies as a source of leverage. 

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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