Cities Under Immigration Review Claim They Don’t Deserve DOJ’s ‘Sanctuary’ Label

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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The 10 jurisdictions whose immigration policies are under review by the Justice Department say they are on the right side of the law, even if they don’t go out of their way to assist federal immigration enforcement efforts.

In response to a request from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to provide evidence of compliance with a key immigration statute, the local governments — four cities, four counties and two states — sent DOJ legal analyses defending their level of cooperation with immigration agents.

Copies of the responses, which were due to DOJ by June 30, were shared with the Associated Press Thursday. While there are obvious differences in the way each jurisdiction approaches immigration enforcement, the responses shared a common theme: They can’t be considered “sanctuary” jurisdictions because they follow the letter of the law.

“They are having it both ways now,” Leon Fresco, a former DOJ official in Obama administration, told the AP. “The cities are saying, we will not in any way do anything that affirmatively increases the amount of immigration enforcement that is occurring in our city. Having said that, if a federal official asks us for information, we will provide this information.”

The jurisdictions under review are the cities of New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia; Miami-Dade County in Florida, Cook County in Illinois, Milwaukee County in Wisconsin and Clark County in Nevada; and the states of California and Connecticut. In a letter sent to those governments in April, Sessions asked local officials for proof they are cooperating with immigration enforcement and warned that DOJ would withhold future grants if that weren’t the case.

At issue is the jurisdictions’ alleged compliance with 8 U.S.C. 1373, a federal statute that makes it illegal for local governments to prevent their employees from sharing information about a person’s immigration status with federal officials. Sessions issued a memo in May that clarified the murky definition of a sanctuary city, saying that the designation would be applied to any local jurisdiction that failed to meet its obligations under Section 1373. (RELATED: Sessions Issues Memo Clarifying DOJ Stance On Sanctuary Cities)

All of the jurisdictions in question claim their policies don’t run afoul of that law, even if they do limit cooperation in other areas of immigration enforcement, such as ignoring detention requests sent by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Under DOJ’s revised guidelines, local governments can refuse to honor ICE detainers and still avoid being designated as sanctuary jurisdictions.

Sessions announced Thursday DOJ would examine the potential sanctuary cities’ claims with a healthy dose of skepticism because they have on previous occasions “boldly asserted they will not comply with requests from federal immigration authorities.”

“It is not enough to assert compliance, the jurisdictions must actually be in compliance,” he said said in a statement. “Sanctuary cities put the lives and well-being of their residents at risk by shielding criminal illegal aliens from federal immigration authorities.”

The DOJ review is part of a larger battle between the Trump administration and local governments seeking to push their resistance to the president’s immigration agenda to the legal limit. Trump came down hard on sanctuary jurisdictions in a January executive order, which sought to deny federal grants to cities and states that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

A federal judge blocked the order in April, ruling that the president didn’t have the authority to place conditions on federal funds already appropriated for the states by Congress. As the injunction makes its way through the courts, DOJ has narrowed both the definition of a sanctuary city and the sources of federal funding that could be withheld from those jurisdictions. Sessions wrote in his May memo that Trump’s order applies only to “federal grants administered by the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security, and not to other sources of federal funding.”

“Any jurisdiction that fails to certify compliance with Section 1373 will be ineligible to receive such awards,” the memo said. “This certification requirement will apply to any existing grant administered by the Office of Justice Programs … and to future grants for which the Department is statutorily authorized to impose such a condition.”

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