By Ruthie Epstein, ACLU, National Political Advocacy Department
They just can’t win.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been trying illegally to strong-arm law enforcement agencies across the country into colluding with the Department of Homeland Security’s mass deportation agenda. But the courts have blocked them every step of the way.
President Trump took his first shot across the bow just a few days after inauguration. A single provision buried in Executive Order 13768 threatened to cut off all federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities. The provision was broad and undefined. It appeared to target jurisdictions that have adopted a range of lawful and sensible law-enforcement policies.
A federal court in California quickly put the executive order’s provision on hold. And last Monday, after months of hearings, the court permanently blocked the unconstitutional provision, ruling that it violated separation of powers, the Constitution’s Spending Clause, and the Tenth Amendment. The court also ruled that the provision was unconstitutionally vague. The judge in the case wrote that “[f]ederal 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.” The government has appealed this case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but for the time being, the president cannot carry out his threat.
Attorney General Sessions tried another way to coerce local governments into adopting anti-immigrant policies. His strategy was to attach new conditions to existing federal law enforcement grants. In July, he announced that recipients of Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) funds, which support a wide range of local programs including indigent defense, crime prevention, and drug treatment, would henceforth be required to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to enter jails to interrogate inmates and provide 48 hours’ notice of an inmate’s release date if ICE requests it.
In September, a federal court in Chicago blocked these conditions nationwide, ruling that the Justice Department had no authority to impose new requirements on the grant money – that’s the job of Congress. Again, the Trump administration has appealed to the Seventh Circuit. Earlier this month, a federal court in Philadelphia also ruled that these new conditions are illegal.
Not to be discouraged, Sessions tried the same tactic with a different pot of Justice Department money. In September, he announced that applicants for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office grants would receive preferential consideration if they cooperated with ICE’s interrogation and notification demands. Last week, the Justice Department announced more than $98 million in COPS grants to hire 802 new full-time law enforcement officers across the country — and claimed that 80 percent of the grantees had agreed to cooperate with the feds on immigration enforcement. COPS funds are intended to help build trust between communities and law enforcement. Instead, Sessions is trying to incentivize police departments to do the exact opposite – discouraging immigrants from contacting the police if they are victims or witnesses to a crime, for fear that they or their family members might be detained and deported.
And sometimes Sessions resorts to naked threats. Since August, the Justice Department has sent at least two rounds of letters to states and local jurisdictions it deems to have insufficient immigration policies. The letters are impressive in their desperation, proposing a new and expansive interpretation of federal law that would strip Byrne JAG funds from almost any local law enforcement agency that limits entanglement with federal immigration enforcement. They are meant to frighten cities and states into agreeing to dedicate government personnel and taxpayer dollars to help the federal government advance its harsh vision of immigration enforcement — but, as its repeated losses in courts confirm, the Justice Department’s legal footing is weak.
With these letters, the administration continues its campaign to harass cities and states that support immigrant communities and advance public safety by focusing their efforts locally and leaving federal immigration enforcement to the feds. The law, however, is clear: Trump and Sessions cannot force state and local governments to do their bidding, no matter how hard they try.