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Sanctuary cities threatened with subpoenas, so mayors skip meeting with Trump

Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., on November 29, 2017. (Ting Shen/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
January 25, 2018

Twenty-three cities and states are facing subpoenas if they do not prove they are complying with federal immigration laws regarding sanctuary cities in a “timely manner,” the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

Letters were sent to each of the jurisdictions, which include California, New York City and Chicago, on Wednesday, demanding they provide documentation that proves they are not violating federal law. That law — known as Section 1373 — says state and local governments can’t prevent their employees from communicating with Immigration and Naturalization Service officials about the citizenship or immigration status of any individual.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is threatening to pull federal grants from cities not demonstrating compliance, though multiple federal courts have blocked President Donald Trump’s administration from withholding those funds; the issue is still being litigated.

“I continue to urge all jurisdictions under review to reconsider policies that place the safety of their communities and their residents at risk,” Sessions said. “Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law. We have seen too many examples of the threat to public safety represented by jurisdictions that actively thwart the federal government’s immigration enforcement — enough is enough.”

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and other mayors who had been invited to the White House on Wednesday to discuss infrastructure plans declined the invitation because of DOJ’s action.

“Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s decision to threaten mayors and demonize immigrants yet again — and use cities as political props in the process — has made this meeting untenable,” said Landrieu, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in a press release.

Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Darrell Steinberg was traveling to D.C. Wednesday for the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting but was not invited to the White House. He said through his spokesman that his “commitment to supporting, protecting and defending Sacramento’s immigrant communities is unwavering.”

The Justice Department sent previous letters in either April or November to 38 jurisdictions asking for proof they were not violating the federal law. A senior DOJ official said in a call Wednesday that the 23 on this second list either did not respond or did so inadequately. Other jurisdictions that received earlier letters but aren’t included in the current round are either still under review or have cooperated with DOJ officials so far, the department said.

So-called sanctuary cities frequently argue that Section 1373 is narrow, saying it doesn’t require them to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents but only prevents them from hindering employees who do so.

Local laws typically tiptoe around language in Section 1373. For example, a California law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October has a provision stating: “A law enforcement official shall have discretion to cooperate with immigration authorities only if doing so would not violate any federal, state, or local law, or local policy, and where permitted by the California Values Act.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the state would comply with the federal request, but that California was in compliance with federal immigration rules.

“I will certainly tell you that the state of California complies with federal law,” said Becerra. “Everyone has to obey the law and in California we make it clear that you have to obey the law, so the state of California will.”

Becerra also said the state would guard against “overreach” of the application of federal laws.

The letter sent to the jurisdictions requests “all documents reflecting any orders, directives, instructions, or guidance to your law enforcement employees (including, but not limited to, police officers, correctional officers, and contract employees), whether formal or informal, that were distributed, produced, and/or in effect during the relevant timeframe, regarding whether and how these employees may, or may not, communicate with the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and/or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or their agents, whether directly or indirectly.”

“For example, if there’s a city council request to a police chief or sheriff to issue a directive to officers not to cooperate with ICE agents,” then that would fall under DOJ’s demands, the senior official said.

When asked how jurisdictions could provide documents that prove they are not doing something, the senior DOJ official said he understands it’s a “complex issue.”

If a jurisdiction fails to respond or respond sufficiently in a “timely manner,” DOJ plans to issue subpoenas to obtain the information, the senior official said. If those documents fail to prove the jurisdictions are in compliance with Section 1373, DOJ may force the return of certain federal grants to those jurisdictions or withhold them in the future. DOJ specifically pointed to the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, the leading source of federal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions.

The 23 jurisdictions under threat of subpoena are:

  • Chicago
  • Cook County, Ill.
  • New York City
  • State of California
  • Albany, N.Y.
  • Berkeley, Calif.
  • Bernalillo County, N.M.
  • Burlington, Vt.
  • City and County of Denver
  • Fremont, Calif.
  • Jackson, Miss.
  • King County, Wash.
  • Lawrence, Mass.
  • City of Los Angeles
  • Louisville Metro, Ky.
  • Monterey County, Calif.
  • Sacramento County, Calif.
  • City and County of San Francisco
  • Sonoma County, Calif.
  • Watsonville, Calif.
  • West Palm Beach, Fla.
  • State of Illinois
  • State of Oregon


© 2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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