Could US Local Government curb Trump’s worst excesses?

Dissent over the US president’s more extreme proposals, including mass deportation of immigrants, may come from state governments and cities.

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First published in The Guardian Public Leaders 31st January 2017

What would I do if I worked in local government in the US? What do my colleagues and counterparts over there make of the situation in which they now find themselves?

In the UK, my responsibility working as an officer in local government in recent years has been to do what I could to help the councils I have worked for continue to deliver vital services in the face of overwhelming financial hardship and unrealistic expectations set by national government policy.

In a heavily centralised state like the UK, it is incredibly difficult to circumvent national policy. We have had to focus our diminishing resources on doing things differently to protect the most vulnerable people and communities.

But the US is a federal country, with a very different dynamic between national and local government. Not only do individual states have their own legislatures, but they also have the power to raise taxes. Not only does the federal government have little say over the day to day lives of US citizens, but state law also sometimes trumps (excuse the pun) federal law, if state law affords more rights to residents.

As a result, states handle the majority of issues most relevant to individuals within their jurisdiction. And although the constitution gives ultimate authority to federal laws, in practice, the federal government’s ability to enforce these kinds of laws is often limited, and it must rely heavily on local policies and law enforcement officials. Without state officials to enforce laws, federal law enforcement officials are in a difficult position.

There are about 89,000 US local government organisations with jurisdiction over the lives of US citizens. Any US president wishing to enact and implement a particular policy or enforce certain legislation requires full cooperation from some or most of them.

In 2013, for instance, the use of medicinal and recreational marijuana was legalised in Colorado and Washington. Yet the use, possession, sale, cultivation, and transportation of cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

What happens when this kind of conflict arises depends on whether the Department of Justice is up for taking on the uphill struggle of getting states to conform. In this instance, the federal government decided it was not worth the legal fight and has stepped back to see what happens in regard to marijuana laws.

There have been many other examples of this kind of clash, especially where civil rights are concerned. In early 2016, for instance, when the US justice and education departments issued new guidance giving transgender students protection under sex discrimination laws and access to facilities consistent with their gender identity, several states pushed back. The HB2 law in North Carolina prevents cities and counties in the state from passing their own anti-discrimination rules.

How might this kind of conflict affect the Trump administration? Take Trump’s campaign trail pledge to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. This sounds completely unfeasible from an administrative point of view and Trump would also need support for his policy from municipal administrations, which would need to proactively ask immigrants for paperwork if they believe they’re undocumented. The only lever the president has to pressure cities into cooperating would be cutting off or reducing federal funding, a step that would need support from Congress.

Some of the largest and most important cities in the US have already vowed to push back on this policy, no matter what the cost might be. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has vowed to do everything he can to fight widespread deportations of illegal immigrants, and mayor Bill de Blasio of New York has pledged not to cooperate with immigration agents. Similarly, mayor Rahm Emanuel has declared that Chicago “will always be a sanctuary city”.

These “sanctuary cities” may not have the power to give people rights, but they have a lot of power of resistance, and are promising to maintain their policies of limiting local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents, as federal government could not compel states to carry out immigration enforcements.

Democratic cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, have all also confirmed that they intend to defy the administration and act as a kind of bulwark against mass deportations.

So the famous US system of checks and balances may limit some of the more extreme proposals Trump has outlined thus far.

As a UK local government worker, I for one am encouraged to see that US local government is already leading the way in ensuring the rights and freedoms of their citizens. I wish them the best of luck over the next four years.