Lawmakers clap back against Justice Department’s subpoena threat over ‘sanctuary cities’

The U.S. Department of Justice threatened 23 jurisdictions.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17: Activists rally for the passage of a 'clean' Dream Act, one without additional security or enforcement measures, outside the New York office of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), January 17, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17: Activists rally for the passage of a 'clean' Dream Act, one without additional security or enforcement measures, outside the New York office of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), January 17, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Several mayors pulled out of a scheduled meeting with the White House on Wednesday after the U.S. Department of Justice threatened 23 jurisdictions with subpoenas over their “sanctuary city” policies. Many other officials cited by the DOJ’s subpoena threat also had harsh words for the federal government.

The White House working session on the economy, opioid crisis, and infrastructure — which took place Wednesday afternoon — came as the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter warning nearly two dozen jurisdictions that they could risk losing crucial federal grants if they do not change their policies reflecting leniency towards immigrants. The DOJ has argued that localities are defying federal immigration laws and must comply with the agency “in a timely manner.”

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At issue in the DOJ letter are so-called “sanctuary cities” like New York City and San Francisco, where local authorities can choose not to hand over undocumented immigrants in criminal detention to the federal immigration agency for potential deportation proceedings without a judicial warrant. Less known about these localities is that they do turn over immigrants in custody who have been charged with serious crimes.

The DOJ sent letters to jurisdictions demanding that they provide documents that they are not violating federal law. Any jurisdictions that didn’t “respond completely” by February 23 will be subject to a subpoena.

The DOJ sent letters to the following jurisdictions: Chicago; Cook County, Illinois; New York City; the state of California; Albany, New York; Berkeley, California; Bernalillo County, New Mexico; Burlington, Vermont; the city and county of Denver, Colorado;  Fremont, California; Jackson, Mississippi; King County, Washington; Lawrence, Massachusetts; the city of Los Angeles, California; Louisville, Kentucky; Monterey County, California; Sacramento County, California; the city and county of San Francisco; Sonoma County, California; Watsonville, California; West Palm Beach, Florida; the state of Illinois; and the state of Oregon.

Here are the responses from officials from the cities cited by the DOJ:

Officials who attended the White House meeting and were cited by DOJ

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer

Fischer’s office sent a letter to WFPL in response to the DOJ’s letter one hour before he attended the 3 p.m. White House meeting, stating that Louisville was compliant with federal law and also a welcoming city for immigrants.

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“The Jefferson County Attorney provided the U.S. Department of Justice with a response to its questions about the new city ordinance in December, and received no feedback until moments ago, when the letter from the DOJ arrived,” according to a statement provided to WFPL by Fischer’s spokeswoman. “Before accusations are made, we expect a basic level of evidence, which the DOJ has not provided.”

“As outlined in the county attorney’s original letter, Louisville is both in compliance with the federal law and a welcoming city. We will provide the additional documents sought; a subpoena is an unnecessary threat. Picking fights for political reasons is a disservice to all Louisvillians, Kentuckians and Americans.”

Officials who declined the White House meeting and were cited by DOJ

Several mayors invited to the working session declined to attend on account of the DOJ’s letter.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

Officials who were’t invited to White House meeting, but were cited by DOJ

Bernalillo County Commission Chairman Steven Michael Quezada 

“I’m going to stand my ground. … I’m protecting children, good families and good people,” Quezada told the Albuquerque Journal on Wednesday. He explained that the threat of losing or having to pay back funds to the federal government was something that the county would look to figuring out.

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“If we have to relook at the budget and look at how we’re going to make it work, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Quezada added.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger

During a press conference Wednesday, Weinberger told reporters that he would likely comply with the DOJ’s request, but stood by the city’s immigration enforcement policies, according to the Burlington Free Press.

“I expect we will respond the way we have consistently responded to these threats, which is to say we are not going to be intimidated by the federal government into bad public safety policy,” Weinberger said. He said that he did not believe federal law compels Burlington police to participate in harsh collaborative efforts with federal agents.

“We have responded professionally to the inquiries about this, and I’m sure we will respond professionally again,” he added. “We’re not going to be intimidated by this. We’re going to stand up for the right thing.”

Burlington receives about $40,000 annually from the grant that is under threat, according to the publication, towards funding that went to victim services in years past.

King County Council chair Joe McDermott

“The Department of Justice has ramped up its campaign of intimidation, threatening local officials who follow the law and protect local residents,” McDermott and King County Executive Dow Constantine said in an emailed statement to the Seattle Post Intelligencer. “To be clear, we comply with the requirements for the federal public safety grants. The Department of Justice’s reckless actions threaten the safety of our communities.”

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera

Rivera said the city has not given federal authorities “any reason to think that we are hiding anything from them,” according to MassLive, a local site based in Western Massachusetts. He also said that federal funding has been used to “put better radio communications in police vehicles” and that the city has collaborated with federal law enforcement agencies in the past. 

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“Today’s letter is a red herring and a continuation to politicize the federal government’s failure to produce a common sense immigration policy,” Rivera said. “If they make it seem that we are hiding the bad guys, it takes away the urgency to help the good guys. Instead of helping the good guys by working on a solution for the dreamers or a path to citizenship, they are focusing on imaginary bad guys.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

“Ironically, this administration cut the grants, and is threatening to cut further grants that we literally used to hire the cops that go after MS-13,” Garcetti, told reporters on Wednesday. “How perverse is that? Somebody who says they’re for going after gangs that prey on our communities, taking the money away from our police to do that?”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg 

Steinberg told McClathy DC through a spokesman that his “commitment to supporting, protecting and defending Sacramento’s immigrant communities is unwavering.”

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera

Watsonville Mayor Lowell Hurst

“Let’s try and protect our residents as well as we can,” Hurst told the local paper Register-Pajaronian. “We don’t want to harbor criminals, but we want to see students and hardworking parents protected as best as we can.”

West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio 

“We want people to know in West Palm Beach we are not going to be checking your immigration status,” Muoio said, according to the Sun Sentinel.