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Mayors, Sessions Talk ‘Sanctuary Cities’ as Federal Judge Blocks Trump Order

Gary, Ind. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and other mayors speak outside the Justice Department.

Gary, Ind. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and other mayors speak outside the Justice Department. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

“We don’t have all the clarity that we need,” Austin, Texas Mayor Steve Adler told Route Fifty.

WASHINGTON — Mayors from around the country, during a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, sought to clarify what the standard is under the Trump administration’s immigration policies for a place to be considered a “sanctuary city.”

Also on Tuesday, a federal judge in California temporarily blocked an executive order President Trump issued on Jan. 25 that threatened to restrict the flow of federal funds to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions. The term “sanctuary city” is generally applied to localities that limit law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

After the meeting with Sessions, Austin, Texas Mayor Steve Adler explained that although the mayors had made progress in their discussions with the Justice Department toward arriving at a common understanding of what “sanctuary city” means, they weren’t quite there yet.

“We don’t have all the clarity that we need,” Adler told Route Fifty following a press conference. “But it’s more clear today to me than it was two days ago.” He added: “I think that we’ve started in a good place and I have hopes we can continue to get that definition.”

Sessions issued a statement after the meeting.

“We are pleased that the mayors who met with us today assured us they want to be in compliance with the law,” he said. “The vast majority of state and local jurisdictions are in compliance and want to work with federal law enforcement.”

The Tuesday court ruling, a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick, concerns cases San Francisco and Santa Clara County, California brought against Trump’s executive order, challenging its constitutionality.

Orrick wrote that because the Constitution vests spending powers in Congress “the Order cannot constitutionally place new conditions on federal funds.”

He went on to say that, “Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the President disapproves."

In a statement responding to the court ruling, the White House said that the rule of law had "suffered another blow, as an unelected judge unilaterally rewrote immigration policy for our Nation." The statement added that the Trump administration was "confident we will ultimately prevail in the Supreme Court."

Trump has also issued executive orders aimed at temporarily barring travelers and refugees from certain predominately Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Those, too, have run into barriers in court.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice sent letters to nine places, which it said had been identified in a report last May from the department’s inspector general as having laws that potentially run afoul of a part of the U.S. Code referred to as 8 USC 1373.

The section of law says states and localities can’t keep government agencies or officials from communicating with immigration authorities about a person’s citizenship or immigration status.

In the letters, the Justice Department warns the jurisdictions that they have until June 30 to confirm they’re in compliance with 8 USC 1373, and says otherwise they could be at risk of losing certain federal grant funding distributed through department programs.

Judge Orrick noted that the injunction he issued “does not affect the ability” of the Trump administration to enforce existing conditions of federal grants or 8 USC 1373, or to develop regulations or other guidance defining what a sanctuary jurisdiction is.

New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York City and Chicago were among the nine places that received the letters the Justice Department sent out last week.

“We were very surprised to receive that letter,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said after meeting with Sessions on Tuesday. He added: “We’re in compliance with 1373.”

He pointed out later that people arrested in New Orleans need to get fingerprinted. “And that fingerprint goes to ICE right away. We did that 80,000 times last year,” Landrieu said. ICE refers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“ICE gets notification immediately about whether we’re in possession of an individual that is in violation of the civil immigration laws,” he added.

An open question, according to Landrieu, is how long someone can be detained without probable cause or without a warrant, before a city runs the risk of violating the Constitution. “That’s just an issue that we’re going to have to work through that lacks clarity,” he said.

Landrieu and Adler were part of a group of mayors who were in town representing the U.S. Conference of Mayors in discussions related to immigration policy. The organization met Monday, according to Adler, with U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials, including the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Adler said the clarifications he’d like to see for the term “sanctuary city” are very specific.

He offered as an example a situation where federal immigration authorities do not issue a warrant or a request to detain an individual to the local government that has the person in custody.

“They would like to have the local people pick up the phone and call them and say: ‘hey, we’re about to release somebody, do you want to file a detainer on this person,’” he said. “I’m not real clear on that issue. In fact, what I was told, was that issue hadn’t quite been decided yet.”

“It’s our position that failing to initiate a phone call like that does not violate 1373,” Adler added.

Asked if there was a timeline for when the Justice Department would attempt to resolve outstanding issues like these, Adler replied: “My sense from the attorney general is that he wanted to move forward with that now.” The mayor said he expected follow-up conversations to happen as early as Wednesday.

The Trump administration has drawn links between the debate around sanctuary cities and public safety.

In the statement issued Tuesday, the White House called Orrick's ruling "a gift to the criminal gang and cartel element in our country" and referenced the 2015 murder of Kate Steinle, 32, who was shot and killed while walking in San Francisco. Her accused killer is an undocumented immigrant who'd been deported five times.

Landrieu said Department of Homeland Security officials told the mayors the agency would focus its attention on violent criminals.

“To which we said, ‘well great, where you been? We’ve been looking to do that for a very, very long period of time, and by the way, you might want to take a look at the funding reductions that are in the president’s budget,'” Landrieu added. “If we want to be focused on violent crime, let’s focus on that.”

Other mayors on hand at Tuesday’s meeting included Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana, Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina and Jorge Elorza of Providence, Rhode Island.

Elorza said an unfortunate aspect of discussions about sanctuary cities up until now is that “we’re using the same term, but it’s like we’re speaking different languages.”

“Without that clarity and without a set definition of what ‘sanctuary city’ is,” he added, “then you just can’t have a conversation.”

This story has been updated to include statements from the White House.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter with Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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