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Trump administration renews threats against Seattle for ‘sanctuary’ policies

The DOJ has threatened the city with subpoena—again


For the past year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been threatening to withhold Department of Justice (DOJ) law enforcement grants from what are known as “sanctuary cities” or “sanctuary jurisdictions,” including, at the time, Seattle and King County.

Sessions’s latest batch of demands was made to just three municipalities: the cities of Oakland and Seattle, and the state of Vermont. Specifically, Sessions is demanding documents from the city to determine whether Seattle is in violation of a law—section 1373—which states local governments can’t restrict information about citizenship or immigration status from certain federal agents—“or, at a minimum, that they may be interpreted or applied in a manner inconsistent with [the law].”

The mayor’s office fired back quickly on Friday.

“Unlike some in the Trump administration, Seattle respects the rule of law,” said Mayor Jenny Durkan in a statement. “Our city is tasked with protecting public safety for all people who call Seattle home. We will also protect our residents from unjust law enforcement actions.”

“We will keep working together, including with law enforcement, to ensure that immigrants and refugees who believe in the promise of America are made to feel welcome here in our community,” continued Durkan.

Whether or not the city is in compliance, claims Sessions, can affect the city’s eligibility for Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAGs). The city uses the money to fund “civilian crime specialists” in the Seattle Police Department.

Sessions has been targeting Seattle’s policies over the course of the last year. In November, the included Seattle in a threat to withhold grants from 29 different jurisdictions, which also included King County.

In January, Sessions submitted more specific requests to 23 jurisdictions, also threatening to withhold JAGs. That letter called on the city and county to “coordinate” and “submit a joint response” to defend their eligibility.

A “sanctuary jurisdiction” has no legal meaning, but Seattle is generally regarded as one due to a 2003 ordinance that bars law enforcement officials from inquiring about residents’ immigration statuses. The DOJ letter cites both that ordinance and a 2016 executive order from then-mayor Ed Murray that bars any city employee from doing the same.

Durkan, a former United States attorney, and City Attorney Pete Holmes responded to Sessions’s November letter, arguing that not only is the city in compliance, it’s illegal to even make the threat in the first place. The city cited a November federal court decision that found that the federal government couldn’t withhold grant money from Philadelphia.

The letter issued by the DOJ last week acknowledged the response, but said “the Department remains concerned that your jurisdiction’s laws, policies, or practices may violate section 1373, or, at a minimum, that they may be interpreted or applied in a manner inconsistent with section 1373.”

The DOJ requested any documents related to how law enforcement interacts with the DOJ, Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As of February 6, per a mayoral directive, all requests by ICE are required to go through the mayor’s office’s legal counsel.

“Our City complies with federal immigration law and asks that the Department ofJustice and ICE do the same,” said Durkan in her statement on Friday. “The federal government does not get to run our cities or convert our local law enforcement officials into immigration cops. I implore this administration to focus on real public safety threats, like the opioid crisis, instead of unnecessarily threatening our residents and mayors across the country.”