As the coronavirus continues to ravage the economy and strain public systems, state coffers are running low, and they’re looking to the federal government to help them out. “Our national and local economies are in dire straits,” the National Governors Association wrote in a recent letter to congressional leadership. “States and local governments need robust support from the federal government as we navigate the response to this pandemic and to help foster the economic recovery that is ahead.” President Donald Trump, however, has suggested that he’s hesitant to give states the funding they so badly need—at least, unless they fall in line with his harsh immigration policies. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, the president floated the idea that federal bailouts to states impacted by the coronavirus could be linked to whether or not they have sanctuary policies, which have been implemented by many Democrat-led states to hinder the Trump administration’s attacks on undocumented immigrants—and, naturally, have absolutely nothing to do with the coronavirus outbreak. Trump said Tuesday that his administration would “want certain things” from states in exchange for a federal bailout, “including sanctuary city adjustments.” “If we’re going to do something for the states, I think they’d want something having to do with sanctuary cities,” the president said.
Trump brought up the sanctuary policies multiple times on Tuesday, speaking both at a Paycheck Protection Program event and at an Oval Office meeting with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Telling reporters in his meeting with DeSantis that he would only bail out states whose funding issues were related to the coronavirus, rather than past mismanagement, Trump used the opportunity to attack sanctuary policies despite the issue being unrelated to the coronavirus discussion. “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,” Trump said. “I think that has to be done. I think it’s one of the problems that the states have. I don’t even think they know they have a problem, but they have a big problem with the sanctuary situation.” Trump’s comments came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested Monday that other strings could also be attached to any federal funds for states, raising the idea that states who want federal funding would need to limit liabilities for businesses who reopen during the pandemic, in order to shield them legally in case their reopening causes more people to fall ill.
This isn’t the first time that Trump has used the coronavirus chaos to push his immigration agenda, as the president has used the virus to impose multiple travel bans and a 60-day restriction on immigration that adviser Stephen Miller is reportedly already trying to prolong. (Trump’s border wall has also gotten an additional half-billion dollars in funding, because the administration isn’t one to lose sight of its true priorities in a global pandemic.) But while Trump has tried to justify his immigration restriction by saying it would help American workers amid the economic turmoil—which economic experts dispute—the sanctuary tie-in appears to be a more markedly blatant attempt to simply rail against one of the Trump administration’s favorite targets. The administration has long attacked sanctuary policies, which prohibit state and local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration officials with regards to undocumented immigrants, and has taken legal action against states and cities with the policies in place. Trump’s Tuesday comments aren’t even the first time the administration has moved to withhold federal funding over sanctuary policies, echoing the administration’s past decision to deny federal grants to states and cities with the policies in place. That move was struck down in three different appeals courts after it was first rolled out in 2017, before finally being upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan in late February.
The suggestion that states could face immigration-related barriers before they get federal bailouts comes as federal funding for states has become a major issue in recent days, inflamed by McConnell’s recent insinuation—which he’s since walked back—that states should go bankrupt instead of receiving federal help. While McConnell’s comments were sharply criticized by politicians on both sides of the aisle, conservatives have been more recently positioning the funding issue as one of using taxpayer dollars to rescue blue states, as Democrat-led states like New York and New Jersey have been the hardest hit by the coronavirus. “It’s not fair to the taxpayers of Florida,” Florida Senator Rick Scott said. “We sit here, we live within our means, and then New York, Illinois, California and other states don’t. And we’re supposed to go bail them out? That’s not right.” The argument that red states shouldn’t be rescuing blue states is, however, a deeply ironic one, given that in non-pandemic times, several left-leaning states like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are among the few who give more to the federal government than they receive, essentially “bailing out” many predominantly-Republican states—like McConnell’s home state of Kentucky—that rely on federal dollars. “Let’s talk about fairness, Mitch,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted Thursday in response to McConnell’s bankruptcy comments. “NYS puts $116 billion more into the federal pot than we take out. Kentucky TAKES $148 billion more from the federal pot than they put in. But we don’t deserve help now because the 15,000 people who died here were predominately Democrats?”