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Sessions Is Cracking Down On Sanctuary Cities Again

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Health care has once again dominated the headlines this week, and with good reason, as the Senate took a series of high-stakes votes on different bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. That process culminated in the dramatic, late-night collapse of the repeal effort, and we’ve got all the details at our three-day-long health care live blog.

Meanwhile, however, there was plenty of other news this week, including important policy developments that would have gotten far more attention had it not been for the health care drama. Here are just a few of the major stories you may have missed:

Immigration: No sanctuary

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took another shot at so-called sanctuary cities1 by threatening to withhold federal funding from areas that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities. In a statement, the Justice Department said it had notified recipients of Byrne JAG grants2 for the 2017 fiscal year that they must allow the Department of Homeland Security to access their jails and give the agency 48 hours notice when an undocumented immigrant will be released from custody. This is in addition to an existing requirement under federal law that state and local jurisdictions may not limit communication with federal law enforcement. But while the new requirements drew lots of media attention this week, it’s not clear whether Sessions can get away with issuing the new conditions.

The Trump administration first attempted to crack down on sanctuary cities early this year with an executive order that vaguely threatened to cut funding from jurisdictions that didn’t cooperate with immigration detainer requests, in which the federal government asks local authorities to keep suspected undocumented immigrants in custody for up to two extra days while they determine whether to begin deportation proceedings. That order was temporarily blocked by a federal judge after San Francisco and Santa Clara County, California, sued on several grounds, one being that the enforcement method is unconstitutional because it involves spending powers that exclusively belong to Congress. (The case is ongoing.) By imposing these new conditions for grant recipients without congressional oversight, the administration could face another legal battle on similar grounds.

“I think it’s safe to say that this is going to end up in court,” said Cody Wofsy, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

Last July, the Obama administration clarified that federal law requires JAG grant recipients not to limit communication with federal law enforcement. Several cities Sessions accused of withholding information from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials wrote letters to the Department of Justice earlier this month. The cities provided information that they said proved they were in compliance with the law. Along with legal issues, there are also substantive questions about whether the new policy is a good idea; critics of the additional conditions argue they would be counterproductive to public safety and push immigrants to become more fearful to report crimes — something that may already be happening.

Trade: Slow boat from China

Trade was one of President Trump’s signature issues during last year’s campaign. He repeatedly criticized NAFTA and other free trade treaties and promised to negotiate better deals with Mexico, China and other U.S. trading partners. He has continued to talk (and tweet) about the issue since taking office, but he hasn’t taken many concrete steps to keep his promises. He withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (something his opponent, Hillary Clinton, also pledged to do), and he imposed tariffs on Canadian lumber imports. That’s about it, however. And now it looks like one of the few significant actions that Trump was reportedly planning to take — limiting steel imports — will be delayed indefinitely.

U.S. steel producers have long complained that China and other countries are exporting too much steel to the U.S., driving down prices and threatening the domestic steel industry. Back in April, Trump took action to help the industry, using an obscure 1962 law to launch an investigation into whether steel imports posed a threat to national security, in what was widely interpreted as the first step toward tariffs or other trade barriers. (The Commerce Department has held a hearing and solicited comments as part of its investigation, but missed a self-imposed deadline to issue a report.) As recently as this month, Trump was hinting that he was close to imposing steep tariffs on steel imports.

In a Wall Street Journal interview this week, however, Trump said the administration wouldn’t be erecting new trade barriers “at this moment.” And while he said he still plans to address the steel issue, it doesn’t sound like that moment will come soon: “We’re waiting till we get everything finished up between health care and taxes and maybe even infrastructure,” Trump told the Journal. Considering how long it is taking Congress to address just the first item on that list, it sounds like tariffs could take a while.

The environment: Drill, baby, drill

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Department of the Interior, filed a proposal to roll back an Obama-era rule that restricted hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) for oil and natural gas on public lands. The rule, which established safety and environmental standards for well construction, among other provisions, was blocked by a federal judge and never took effect. The Obama administration appealed that ruling, but now Trump, rather than continue the appeal, instead plans to ditch the rules altogether.

Taken on its own, the impact of Trump’s decision may be relatively modest; the vast majority of fracking takes place on private lands, which weren’t covered by the rules. But it shows the scope of his administration’s authority over public lands. Back in April, when Trump announced plans to review national monuments designated by his predecessors, we wrote about the president’s power to transform public lands, even without needing to revoke any national monument designations. The federal government owns about 640 million acres, especially in the West,3 and much of that land has no special protected status, such as a national monument or park. The rules that govern what kinds of activities and industry can happen on that land are in large part up to the federal agencies that manage them — which, of course, answer to Trump.

This latest fracking decision follows previous Trump administration policies that have made it easier for the energy industry to operate. In February, the president signed legislation reversing an Obama administration rule that aimed to protect streams from contamination by coal mines. In March, he issued an executive order that, among other things, lifted a moratorium on issuing new coal mining leases on public lands. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke declared his admiration for famous conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt during his confirmation hearing in January. So far, however, he has seemed less aligned with conservationists than with the gas and oil industry.

Labor policy: Working hard for the money

Environmental policy isn’t the only sphere where the Trump administration is reversing never-implemented rules. The Labor Department this week took the first formal step toward revoking an Obama administration rule that would have vastly increased the number of American workers who qualify for overtime pay. That rule, like the fracking rule, was blocked by the courts before it could take effect.

Federal labor law requires companies to pay most hourly employees time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours a week. But many salaried workers don’t qualify for overtime if they earn more than about $23,660 a year. The Obama administration’s rule would have roughly doubled that threshold to $47,476 — the first increase in a decade and a change that would have made millions more workers eligible for extra pay. Supporters of the change argued it would ensure workers are paid fairly and encourage companies to hire more people rather than asking existing employees to work unpaid overtime. But companies said the new threshold was too high and would cost jobs.

It isn’t clear what exactly will happen now. The Trump administration this week asked for public comment on how it should revise the rule; it hasn’t yet released its own proposal. During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said it might make sense to increase the overtime threshold, just not by as much as the previous administration proposed; he suggested setting the bar “somewhere around $33,000.” It’s also possible the administration could propose getting rid of the national overtime threshold altogether; the request for comment asks whether the Labor Department should consider setting multiple salary levels based on employer size, location or other factors.


  1. There is no universally agreed-upon definition of “sanctuary cities,” but the term is often used to describe cities that refuse to cooperate with detainer requests under certain circumstances.

  2. Full name: the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program

  3. In 2015 the top 12 states with the most federal land were all located west of the Mississippi; combined, they accounted for more than 570 million acres.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Kathryn Casteel is a former FiveThirtyEight staffer who wrote about economics and policy issues.

Ella Koeze was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.