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Court Rules DOJ Can't Withhold Grant Money to Force "Sanctuary City" Compliance

Ferdinand Stöhr

The Trump Administration’s efforts to stop “sanctuary cities” ran into another legal roadblock Thursday when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld a national injunction against the Department of Justice’s decision to tie federal grant money to a city’s willingness to cooperate with immigration enforcement. According to Judge Ilana Rovner, “The Attorney General in this case used the sword of federal funding to conscript state and local authorities to aid in federal civil immigration enforcement. But the power of the purse rests with Congress, which authorized the federal funds at issue and did not impose any immigration enforcement conditions on the receipt of such funds.” 

The City of Chicago filed suit in July when the DOJ withheld money from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant—money earmarked to help cities pay for police cruisers, body cameras and community outreach programs. The grant was established in 2005 without any ties to local law enforcement agencies cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the courts in Philadelphia and Los Angeles agreed that only Congress could establish the conditions cities must meet to be eligible for the money, and that Sessions had overstepped his authority when he tried to impose new ones. 

The administration’s decision to withhold the grant money was its latest attempt to stop “sanctuary cities”—a term that has no official meaning and generally refers to a broadly pro-immigrant posture. One consistent thread that has frustrated the Trump Administration is the unwillingness of local law enforcement agencies to hold detainees for ICE, a practice that is illegal. Those who had been arrested are free to go after they have paid their bail, been ordered released

on their own recognizance, completed their sentence, or charges have been dropped. An ICE “detainer” asks law enforcement officials to continue to hold individuals for up to 48 more hours with no additional charges or additional arrest. This detainer, also called an ICE hold, is voluntary and holding a person pursuant to a detainer arguable violates the individual’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.

The administration’s belief that a get-tough posture is necessary toward sanctuary cities and their immigrant populations runs counter to the experiences of many on the ground in the cities. As Alyson Sincavage, American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) senior legislative associate, observed

AILA members across the country see the detrimental impact when the federal government attempts to force local law enforcement officials to shoulder the responsibility of immigration enforcement. It is vitally important for local police to build trust between themselves and members of their communities for everyone's safety. 

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the court’s ruling as a validation of the city leaders’ efforts to uphold what they considered to be basic American values.

“We, as a city, will stand our ground when it comes to…immigrants from all parts of the world who come to this city, struggle and sacrifice to make sure their kids have a better life,” he said. “They came here because they believe in what America and more importantly for me also, what the city of Chicago has to offer.”

New Orleans is widely considered a sanctuary city, and according to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a federal consent decree prohibits police officers from asking those they encounter about their immigration status. Still, last November Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided that New Orleans is not a sanctuary city, and that exempted it from any of the proposed punitive measures proposed for other cities. What led him to that conclusion is not clear.

All the uncertainty created by the Trump Administration’s attitude toward undocumented immigrants as well as those with legal status make this a risky time to be out of status. Those with temporary status or those who are out of status should consult an experienced immigration attorney to see what options may be available to them.

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