Iowa City joins the legal fight against a Trump administration immigration policy

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions — illustration by Blair Gauntt

Iowa City has joined the city of Chicago’s legal fight against a controversial Trump administration immigration policy. The city is one of 42 cities, counties and municipal organizations that joined a friend-of-the-court brief filed on Thursday, in support of Chicago’s federal lawsuit challenging U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to exclude so-called “sanctuary cities” from a Department of Justice (DOJ) program that awards grants to local law enforcement agencies.

Sessions and President Trump repeatedly denounced sanctuary cities in last year’s presidential campaign and have continued to do so since they’ve taken office. But the administration did not offer a legal definition of the term until May. In a May 22 memo to the “grant-making components” of the Justice Department, Sessions wrote “the term ‘sanctuary jurisdiction’ will refer only to jurisdictions that ‘willfully refuse’” to provide to or receive from federal immigration agents “information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.” Any municipality the DOJ classifies as a sanctuary jurisdiction would be ineligible to receive public safety grants from the department.

Cities around the country have objected to President Trump’s stated goal of forcing police departments to enforce federal immigration policy. Some of the objections are moral in nature, but others are practical, such as not having sufficient resources or personnel to take on a job traditionally done by the federal government. It’s also commonly asserted that having local police act as immigration agents will endanger public safety by making immigrant communities reluctant to cooperate with officers.

Sessions’ decision regarding DOJ grants is the second attempt by the Trump administration to withhold federal funds from municipalities it deems uncooperative on immigration issues. In April, a federal judge issued an injunction prohibiting the enforcement of an executive order issued by President Trump that would have blocked sanctuary jurisdictions from receiving any federal grants. The judge found the order was likely to be struck down as unconstitutional, if the government ever attempted to defend it in court.

In August, the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that Sessions is attempting to unconstitutionally bring local law enforcement departments under federal control by threatening to withhold funds, which do not contain provisions requiring municipalities to enforce federal immigration laws.

Chicago’s challenge, and the friend-of-the-court brief, focus on the DOJ’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG). Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005, the JAG provides cities and counties with money to hire additional law enforcement personnel, as well as buy necessary equipment, supplies and services for local police departments.

“Congress purposefully made this grant very flexible,” Iowa City Assistant City Attorney Sue Dulek told Little Village. “And one of the main arguments in the [friend-of-the-court] brief is the DOJ’s action is violating Congress’ intent in creating the program by imposing this new condition on it.”

The brief also argues there isn’t clarity as to what constitutes “willfully refusing” to cooperate with federal immigration officials, and that DOJ officials have offered varying definitions of the term.

“They seem to have created a moving target,” Dulek said. “No one seems to know what is actually required to qualify for a grant.”

“Some communities submitted their grant applications with caveats, stating that in the case of certain requirements being imposed, the application will be withdrawn. Iowa City decided not to deal with that, and did not apply at all.”

Dulek explained that the city had received approximately $25,000 each year from the JAG, which it shared with Johnson County. According to the brief, Iowa City “uses Byrne JAG funds to promote traffic safety, to establish a search and rescue program aimed at individuals at risk for wandering, to partially fund a drug task force, and to purchase equipment.”

“In our case, that’s not a lot of money to forgo,” Dulek said. “But it’s my understanding that in the larger cities, the grants run into the millions. So, those cities have a lot at stake.”

In a press release announcing the city’s action, Mayor Jim Throgmorton said,

It is our belief that it is absolutely essential for the public safety of our community that all people, no matter their status, feel comfortable communicating and working with our Police Department. We do not want to risk undermining the relationships our officers have built and the critical roles those relationships play in keeping Iowa City safe.

In January, the Iowa City Council unanimously passed a resolution to prohibit the use of city resources to enforce federal immigration laws. Exceptions can be made to ensure public safety.

Whether Iowa City qualifies as a sanctuary jurisdiction under current Justice Department guidelines, and would be excluded from receiving JAG funds, is unclear. The city does not used the term “sanctuary” to describe itself.

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