On January 25th, President Donald Trump signed an executive orderthat threatened to strip federal aid to so-called sanctuary cities that fail to enforce the federal government’s immigration policies. In Massachusetts, two of the state’s poorest cities—Lawrence and Chelsea—have filed a lawsuit challenging the executive order.

Lawrence is an urban industrial city some 25 miles north of Boston. Waves of different immigrant groups have flocked to the city since the mid-1800s to work in the towering red brick textile mills that still line the winding Merrimack River. The mills have long been shuttered and the city is still trying to get back on its feet, but immigrants have not stopped coming to Lawrence. These days three quarters of Lawrence residents are Latino or Hispanic and more than 37 percent were born outside the United States.

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An old mill in Lawrence.
Elizabeth Ross/WGBH News

English language classes are especially popular in Lawrence. Thousands of residents are on waiting lists hoping to attend ESL programs like the ones at the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council. Executive director, Evelyn Friedman, says the classes are invaluable.

“Many of our students come and they have no English language skills and they’re working at very menial jobs and as they gain skills they move up in their organizations or are able to get better jobs,” Friedman says. “The other thing is that they can’t communicate with the teachers of their children.”

Lawrence could lose out big time if President Trump is able to follow through on his threat and pulls the city’s federal funding. Almost 30 percent of the population in Lawrence lives in poverty and the city relies heavily on federal aid, receiving more than $36 million each year. That's about 13 percent of its annual budget. The federal money helps support ESL classes, but also many basic services, such as the city’s public schools and its free lunch programs. 

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera is the son of a single immigrant mother who once worked in the Lawrence mills. Growing up, Rivera say he benefited personally from many federally funded programs and calls himself a “poster boy for all the good stuff that government can do.”

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Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera.
Elizabeth Ross/WGBH News

“I’m a public school kid [and] a public higher education kid,” he says. The GI bill helped him buy his first house, Rivera explains. “My mom was on food stamps [and] we did public housing,” he explains.

Like most sanctuary cities, Lawrence police will hand over criminals to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) but will not assist with civil immigration investigations and detentions. Supporters of Lawrence’s policy claim it is a matter of public safety and that it encourages all residents, even those who are undocumented, to cooperate with local law enforcement.

The Mayor says his cash-strapped police force does not have the resources to help more, even if he wanted them to. “I got 80,000 people that I gotta fight a drug war. I gotta fight homelessness problems and an opioid problem,” he says. “And to be punished, for not having that resource, it’s basically an unfunded mandate.” 

Lawrence and the city of Chelsea are trying to block President Trump’s executive order and have filed a lawsuit that argues they are not violating any federal immigration laws with their policing policies. It also calls the executive order unconstitutional.

Rachel Rosenbloom, an immigration law professor at Northeastern University agrees.

“So the question is, does the federal government have the right to withhold funds from sanctuary cities. Can the president cut off funds without Congress?”, she explains. “I think that the answer to that is no,” Rosenbloom says.

While Congress can attach some restrictions to federal programs, there are limits, according to Rosenbloom, and it cannot as the Supreme Court has put it, hold a gun to a state’s head.

“If Congress wants to have a particular program that it funds and it creates some strings that are attached that are specifically for that program that’s pretty common,” Rosenbloom says. “But if Congress uses unrelated funds and says we won’t give you these funds, unless you carry out immigration enforcement actions, the Supreme Court has said in other cases, that is not permissible under the constitution.”

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice which helped Lawrence and Chelsea file their federal lawsuit, along with the Goodwin law firm, says he hopes, “that other communities in other states will be able to replicate the blueprint that we have created here and create a mix of civil rights, community based and sanctuary communities that all come together to speak with one voice,” to challenge what Espinoza-Madrigal calls President Trump’s “anti-immigrant agenda.”

The Trump administration has not yet responded to Lawrence and Chelsea’s lawsuit. Under the rules of the federal court in Boston, it has until next week to do so.

Update: As of Monday, April 10, the Trump administration responded by filing a motion to dismiss the complaint.