Sanctuary cities targeted in budget

Sanctuary cities targeted in budget
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

The Trump administration's proposed budget includes significant reforms to immigration law that would amount to a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities.

The proposal would change an obscure federal law that compels state and local authorities to share with federal authorities the immigration status of individuals.

Under current law, state and local authorities are required to tell federal authorities of the immigration status of anyone they pick up. But they are not required to detain them.

The change would allow the federal government to impose penalties on local authorities that decline federal immigration detainers. These are requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold foreign prisoners and detainees after they’re set for release.

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Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the changes are meant to “expand the scope to prevent state and local government officials from prohibiting or restricting any government law enforcement entity or official from complying with a lawful civil immigration detainer request."

Local authorities have long argued those detainers violate prisoners' constitutional rights, putting cities and jails at risk of being sued.

Federal authorities claim detainers are necessary to keep violent offenders off the streets. 

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attends football game with Jeff Sessions' Alabama Senate race opponent Bradley Byrne Impeachment tests Barr-Trump relationship Tide, Tigers and Trump: President hopes for home-field advantage in Alabama MORE issued a memo on Monday that legally defined “sanctuary jurisdictions” as jurisdictions that fall under the precept that the budget law changes.

Sessions had been pushed to legally define the concept, as cities argued no sanctions could be levied against them unless the administration accused them of behaving illegally.

Immigration activists initially reacted with caution to Sessions's memo, which presented an unusually narrow definition of sanctuary jurisdictions. 

“I ... saw the Sessions memo and assumed this was a capitulation,” said Philip Wolgin, managing director for the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress, a progressive advocacy organization.

“Attorney General Sessions, unsurprisingly, knew what he was doing when he put out that memo,” added Wolgin.

In a January executive order, President Trump ordered the withholding of federal grants, “except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes by the Attorney General or the Secretary [of Homeland Security]” to sanctuary cities.

In the ensuing debate, cities challenged the administration to define the term, eventually getting the order blocked by a district judge in April. 

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge William Orrick said the order brought “substantial confusion and fear” to local governments that they would lose all federal grants, including those unrelated to law enforcement.

Sessions on Monday limited the grants in question “solely to federal grants administered by the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security, and not to other sources of federal funding.”

Wolgin pointed out that under the executive order, sanctuary cities would only be eligible to receive law enforcement-related federal grants, but under the memo and proposed budget reform, law enforcement grants would be the only ones at risk.

“We think it's because they finally realized that there's a whole lot of case law that the federal government can only condition receipts of grants on things that have to do with a similar purpose for those grants,” said Wolgin.

Still, it's unclear which grants the administration would seek to limit.

“We’re enjoined from this particular element, so right now current grants could not be affected by it,” said David Lapan, a spokesman for DHS Secretary John Kelly.

“We would be looking at the range of grants that DHS has with certain jurisdictions and making those determinations,” Lapan added.

The language changing the law is unlikely to pass as proposed in the budget, but it's an indication of the legal path the Trump administration wants to take in its fight against sanctuary cities.

“Given just how much the Trump administration has come back again and again to attack sanctuary cities, my concern is they will try to put this in another bill,” said Wolgin.