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Protestors gather at Brooklyn Borough Hall to pray before a rally in protest President Donald Trump's immigration order.

Frank Franklin II/AP

Only two weeks have passed since Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States, but for Jorge Elorza, the mayor of Providence, R.I., it feels like far longer.

In that time, Mr. Elorza has spoken at demonstrations, consulted with colleagues across the country and sought legal advice on the early directives signed by Mr. Trump. One such order threatened to cut federal funding to cities like Providence, which limit local co-operation with certain immigration enforcement actions.

But for Mr. Elorza, deciding to defy Mr. Trump wasn't a difficult choice. "Our policy is not going to change, period," he said. "We are going to fight him at every turn."

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As Mr. Trump makes an early push to implement controversial items on his agenda, cities are emerging at the forefront of the opposition. Mayors have joined those protesting against Mr. Trump's policies in the streets and are promising to answer his threats with an avalanche of litigation.

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The result is a battle that will pit the new President against some of the largest cities in the country, which voted heavily in favour of his Democratic opponent. While mayors appreciate Mr. Trump's pledge to improve U.S. infrastructure, they're deeply concerned about issues such as health care and many are incensed by his moves on immigration.

What's more, mayors say they have the upper hand in the struggle Mr. Trump has initiated over federal funding, pointing to legal precedents that prevent Washington from using money as a tool of coercion.

Lawyers for San Francisco have already filed a lawsuit challenging an executive order signed by Mr. Trump last week, which directs the government to find ways to cut funding to so-called "sanctuary cities." It's a loose term that can refer to a wide variety of policies, from directing city employees not to ask about a person's immigration status to declining to hold undocumented immigrants for possible deportation.

Cities are proving to be a thorn in the President's side in other ways, too. In his hometown of New York, protests are now a daily occurrence. On Thursday, hundreds of Yemeni immigrants closed the doors of their bodegas – the convenience stores that are the lifeblood of the five boroughs – in order to attend a protest against Mr. Trump's immigration ban. In Boston, a district court temporarily struck down the ban, making the city perhaps the only place in the country as of Friday where all visa holders from seven Muslim-majority nations can still enter the United States.

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Tom Cochran, the chief executive of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said he has never seen an atmosphere like this in his four decades at the organization, not even in the waning days of the Nixon administration. "It's totally different from anything we've ever seen," he said.

Mr. Cochran said his group is pushing back against Mr. Trump's executive order on sanctuary cities, both in public and in private. He has requested a meeting with the new Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, who has much of the responsibility for implementing the sanctuary cities order. Mr. Cochran intends to bring city police chiefs to the meeting to explain why they feel fostering trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement is important for public safety.

Mr. Cochran added that there is one area where cities could find common ground with Mr. Trump: his pledge to upgrade the country's aging roads, bridges, tunnels and ports. "We're having a wrestling match and a fist fight" over the threats to sanctuary cities and the immigration ban, said Mr. Cochran. "But the thing we can work with him on is infrastructure."

Benjamin Barber, a political scientist who has written extensively about the role of cities in the world, predicted that Mr. Trump will find it difficult to implement his executive orders. "He's used to being the boss and the CEO, where if someone gets in the way, you're fired," said Mr. Barber. "He can't say to 600 mayors, 'Do it my way or the highway.'"

Mr. Trump's threat to find ways to cut funding to sanctuary cities has had limited results so far. Only one city – Miami – made an adjustment to its policies in the wake of the executive order. Miami's mayor said the city would from now on comply with all requests from federal immigration authorities to hold people in its custody (previously, the city insisted on being reimbursed for the costs of such detentions).

Other cities went scrambling to consult with lawyers. One element of uncertainty is that Mr. Trump's executive order did not define what a sanctuary city is or which types of funding the government would attempt to withhold.

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But an attempt to cancel federal funding to cities in order to retaliate for their policies relating to immigration enforcement will face major hurdles. Annie Lai, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, noted that the tenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents state and local officers from being compelled to carry out a federal program. The federal government "can encourage or entice but cannot compel," said Prof. Lai.

Federal grants are governed by contractual terms, added Edward Waters, a lawyer in Washington who is an expert on the grant-making process. "You don't just get to say, 'You're not enforcing immigration law so we're taking Head Start money or Zika money,'" he said, referring to programs to help low-income children and combat infectious disease. A recent U.S. Supreme Court case in 2012 also affirmed that the government cannot use the threat to withhold money as a form of coercion.

Depending on how far the Trump administration intends to take the fight, sanctuary cities could find themselves vulnerable to grant cuts in areas linked to immigration enforcement – for instance, grants to police departments or for homeland-security purposes.

Mayors such as Mr. Elorza of Providence say they're preparing for that eventuality. The city receives roughly $71-million (U.S.) in federal grants annually. A little more than $2-million comes from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Elorza said that federal funding for law enforcement has declined steeply in recent years, so already the city is managing with fewer funds – and it will cope if the funding is eliminated.

"Even if it gets to that point, we're going to be fine. We're going to find a way to keep our streets safe," he said. "The world will not end. We're not going to let him have that effect on us."

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