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Seattle sues Trump administration over sanctuary city orders

‘Let me be clear about the president’s executive order: It is violating the law’

Tiffany Von Arnim/Flickr

On Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and City Attorney Pete Holmes announced a lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s administration over repeated threats to withhold federal funding from cities that won’t comply with the administration’s crackdown on immigration.

“The action we’re taking today is in the best interests of this city as well as other American cities,” Holmes said.

The announcement comes on the heels of a renewed threat from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said he’d withhold Department of Justice law enforcement grants from what are known as “sanctuary cities.” Seattle is considered a sanctuary city by most definitions, largely due to a 2003 ordinance that bars law enforcement officials from inquiring about residents’ immigration status.

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions told cities that they’re breaking the law and making their communities less safe,” said the mayor at a press conference.

“We are not breaking any laws, and we are prioritizing safety,” said Murray. “And let me be clear about the president’s executive order: It is violating the law. It is unconstitutional.”

According to Holmes, the federal government can’t compel local governments to enforce federal laws. The federal government also can’t punish local governments with the threat of pulling federal funding unless it’s relevant to the program, which is what the administration is doing, argues Holmes.

“Local governments do not enforce federal law. We are prohibited from doing so,” said Holmes. Even if they wanted to, he said, “ironically, we would face civil liability.”

Mayor Murray has reiterated Seattle’s status as a sanctuary city for residents who are undocumented many times since Trump’s election this past November. President Trump has repeatedly threatened to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities.

Despite the suit coming within the same week as Sessions’s announcement, Mayor Murray said he’d been working with several municipalities on responses to the administration’s executive orders on immigration since January.

Holmes said the city has filed amicus briefs to support similar lawsuits, including one in Santa Clara County that alleges Trump’s executive order on immigration is unconstitutional.

Despite the Trump administration’s threats, the city hasn’t lost federal grant money yet. But Murray says that not only does the looming threat present budgeting issues, it’s creating urgent safety issues in the city.

The “incessant sabre rattling,” added Holmes, is creating problems for law enforcement locally. “It does not help to have this nation’s highest law enforcement official misstating the law.”

Multiple studies, including one earlier this year at University of California-San Diego, found that cities are safer when local law enforcement doesn’t comply with federal immigration enforcement because immigrants feel safer reporting small crimes and other public health issues.

“This is really important and emotional for both of us,” said Seattle City Councilmember Debra Juarez, standing next to Councilmember Lorena González, at the press conference. She noted that under today’s administration, their parents and grandparents could be targeted.

“We have relatives who are keeping their IDs on them because they have a Latina last name,” she said.

For the lawsuit, the city retained the services of East Coast law firm Mayer Brown, who are providing their services pro bono, but the overall budget for the lawsuit is unclear. “It’s worth [the money] defending people’s rights,” said Murray.