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Sessions targets more ‘sanctuary cities’

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee Nov. 14, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
November 16, 2017

The Department of Justice sent letters to 29 so-called sanctuary cities on Wednesday, demanding officials show they are cooperating with immigration enforcement laws by Dec. 8. The targets include Washington, D.C., several cities or counties in California, major state capitals like Denver, and entire states.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have made jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement a conspicuous target from the beginning in their crackdown on illegal immigration, and this is only the latest example. Sessions sent nine letters in April making similar demands.

“Jurisdictions that adopt so-called ‘sanctuary policies’ also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law,” Sessions said Monday in a news release. “I urge all jurisdictions found to be potentially out of compliance in this preliminary review to reconsider their policies that undermine the safety of their residents.”

The latest letters note that federal funding each jurisdiction receives requires them to comply with 8 U.S.C. Section 1373, which forbids states and localities from ordering their officials to refuse to turn over information about the immigration status of individuals within their jurisdiction. But a Justice Department official declined to comment when asked what action would be taken against jurisdictions that didn’t show compliance by the Dec. 8 deadline.

“The Department has not made a final determination regarding Sacramento County’s compliance with section 1373,” one of the letters states. “This letter does not constitute final agency action and nothing in this letter creates any right or benefit enforceable at law against the United States.”

The DOJ official said all jurisdictions sent a letter of this type in the past have met the deadline to show compliance. The letter in April was sent to officials in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami-Dade County, the state of California and four other jurisdictions. Reports at the time indicate that most jurisdictions felt they were already in compliance with the specific federal law under section 1373, which only prohibits localities from interfering with communications between local law enforcement officers and immigration authorities. It does not mandate that local authorities detain people for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

NYC’s response to the letter, dated Oct. 27, said the city’s policies were already in compliance with section 1373 and the Department of Justice was “troublingly” mischaracterizing those policies.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in October directing local authorities to not ask citizens about immigration status during “routine interactions.” In a letter about the bill, Brown specified that it does not “prevent cooperation in deportation proceedings,” which is what would specifically violate section 1373. Brown’s office declined to comment further.

Twenty-nine versions of the latest letter went out Wednesday to recipients that include Sacramento County, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Newark, N.J.; Denver, West Palm Beach, Fla., Oregon, Illinois, Vermont and Washington, D.C.

Attorney General Karl A. Racine, attorney general for D.C., said in a statement the letter was a “threat to cut off funding” and characterized it as “counterproductive and wrong-headed.”

“The District is in compliance with all federal laws,” Racine said. “We will review DOJ’s letter and are prepared to defend our residents however necessary.”

The letters specifically mentions the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, the leading source of federal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions. The program provides states and local governments with critical funding necessary to support a range of program areas including law enforcement, prosecution, indigent defense, courts, crime prevention and education, corrections and community corrections, drug treatment and enforcement, planning, evaluation, technology improvement, and crime victim and witness initiatives and mental health programs. There was $174.4 million allocated to states under the grant in fiscal year 2017.

That’s in addition to millions more dollars sent to local jurisdictions every year from the program. Local counties and cities in California, for example, got $10.6 million in 2017.

Sessions announced in July new conditions on the grant, requiring recipients to allow federal immigration authorities access to detention facilities and to give 48 hours’ notice before releasing suspected illegal immigrants. Chicago sued over the additional requirements, and U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber in Illinois agreed with the city, saying Sessions exceeded his lawful authority when he imposed new conditions on particular law enforcement grants.

An executive order signed by Trump shortly after he took office that threatened to strip federal money from sanctuary cities was also blocked by a federal judge in April on similar grounds. Judge William Orrick emphasized in his ruling that only Congress can impose new conditions on federal funds and specifically said that Trump did not have the power and therefore cannot delegate those powers to the attorney general.

Orrick’s ruling exempted the Justice Assistance Grant Program, which already lists compliance with section 1373 as a condition.

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© 2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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