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Sessions sends warning to Seattle, King County on immigration policy

Jeff Sessions (2011) Credit: Gage Skidmore

Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent King County and Seattle officials letters on Wednesday inquiring about whether they are violating the terms of a U.S. Department of Justice grant with sanctuary city policies.

It’s the latest escalation of the Trump administration’s attempts to force municipal and state police and law enforcement agencies to assist federal authorities in their efforts to capture possible undocumented immigrants. Wednesday’s letters went to 29 cities, counties and states.

The Justice Department said it had found that the jurisdictions all “may have laws, policies, or practices that violate 8 U.S.C. 1373, a federal statute that promotes information sharing related to immigration enforcement.”

The local letters went to the chair of the King County Council, Joe McDermott, and Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess. Both of the letters refer to a 2016 grant and say that the Justice Department is concerned that some of the city and county practices related to undocumented immigrants “may violate” requirements to comply with the department’s policies.

In a statement, Burgess referred to the letter as “more bluster and bullying by the president based on his ideologically driven fixation on immigrants and refugees.”

“Seattle is a welcoming city,” Burgess said. “We value the contributions made by the neighbors who live among us. We are proud of their presence.”

Kimberly Mills, a spokesperson for City Attorney Pete Holmes, added that the Justice Department had initially sent the city letter to Ed Murray, who resigned Sept. 12 amid allegations of sexual harassment. The Department later resent the letter and addressed it to Mayor Burgess.

Mayor-elect Jenny Durkan also issued a statement: “Unfortunately for the Trump administration, multiple federal judges have ruled that the Department of Justice cannot withhold federal law enforcement aid to sanctuary cities.”

“Seattle is and will continue to be a sanctuary city,” Durkan said. “Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump, keep your hands off Seattle.”

McDermott, for his part, said that he had learned of the letter addressed to him only after receiving calls from the press and that he was forced to go to the Department of Justice website to read it. He referred to the letter as “insulting” and as “an attempt to bully and intimidate the residents of King County.”

“We are a welcoming, inclusive, affirming place,” McDermott said. He added that he would not allow the letter to change the values of King County. McDermott also argued that, contrary to what the letter implies, King County complies with all federal statutes. The county does not restrict communication with federal officials, McDermott said.   

McDermott indicated he is working with King County Executive Dow Constantine and King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg on crafting a formal response to the letter, which they intend to send by a Dec. 8 deadline that the Department of Justice specified. “If they want to take federal money away, we will fight them on that,” McDermott said.

The letters specifically state that no final decision has been made about whether the jurisdictions have failed to comply with their grants, a finding that presumably could lead to cutting off funds or even requiring repayments. In a statement, however, Sessions used strong language in urging the jurisdictions to review and change their policies.

“Jurisdictions that adopt so-called ‘sanctuary policies’ also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law,” Session’s statement said. “I urge all jurisdictions found to be potentially out of compliance in this preliminary review to reconsider their policies that undermine the safety of their residents. We urge jurisdictions to not only comply with [the federal statute], but also to establish sensible and effective partnerships to properly process criminal aliens.”

The $673,000 grant was awarded jointly to Seattle and King County under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program. The money is to allow “states and units of local government, including tribes, to support a broad range of activities to prevent and control crime based on their own state and local needs and conditions.”

Burgess said the city used the money to “fund the work of three civilian crime prevention specialists in our police department.”

“These prevention specialists work with people throughout the city and give advice on how to avoid being a crime victim, how to report crimes that do occur, and how to take proactive steps to improve the physical environment to reduce crime,” Burgess said in an emailed statement. “It’s ironic that a president who says he wants to reduce crime and help crime victims works to remove funding from programs that do exactly that.”

The letters also asks Seattle and King County to address whether they would comply with federal demands on immigration policies if they are an awarded an additional year of funding under the same grant program. In addition to mentioning policies on asking about immigrant status, the letter to King County also said the county appears to be releasing undocumented immigrants without alerting Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as not following ICE’s requests to detain undocumented immigrants beyond their scheduled time of release from custody.

Sessions’ ability to force local and state police to fall into line with information sharing, detention and roundups of undocumented immigrants has been subject to heavy legal and political questioning. On Wednesday, the same day he sent the new letters, a federal judge went along with the city of Philadelphia’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Justice Department’s attempt to withhold money over its sanctuary policies. Philadelphia officials hailed the decision as a significant victory.

Sanctuary cities are intended to facilitate cooperation between the police and undocumented immigrants. They ensure the undocumented have access to some city services, and police are instructed not to inquire about a resident’s immigration status. Experts generally agree sanctuary cities do not have higher crime rates than other cities. And police in cities like Houston and Los Angeles have also noted some Latinos have stopped reporting certain crimes — such as domestic violence, sexual assault and rape — because of anti-immigrant talk and a fear of deportation. So, advocates argue, the lack of sanctuary protection can make a city less safe.

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