Department of Justice targets NJ, Seattle county over 'sanctuary' policies

The Justice Department is filing suit against the state of New Jersey and King County, Washington — home to the city of Seattle — over “sanctuary” policies that hinder federal immigration officers, Attorney General William Barr said Monday.

Barr, speaking to a group of law enforcement officers at the National Sheriffs’ Association conference in Washington, said law enforcement officers are being “put in harm's way by these ideologically driven policies.”

The lawsuits were the latest effort by the Trump administration to punish localities with sanctuary policies — municipalities that offer protections to immigrants in the U.S. illegally — as the president heads into his reelection campaign.

“Today is a significant escalation in the federal government’s effort to confront the resistance of sanctuary cities,” Barr told the audience to roaring applause.

Some cities, like New York, have put laws in place that prohibit the sharing of information with immigration officials.

Locally, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have declared themselves "sanctuary" counties.

Immigration officials have sent subpoenas to Denver and New York City over requests for information on immigrants about to be released from jail, and have petitioned federal courts to enforce the subpoenas, a highly unusual act that could end up with local law enforcement officials held in contempt if they don’t comply. In New York, Homeland Security suspended “trusted traveler” programs that speed their re-entry into the U.S. over a law that prohibits state officials from sharing motor vehicle data with immigration officers.

The Justice Department’s lawsuit against New Jersey alleges that the state is violating federal law by prohibiting state and local law enforcement from sharing information about inmates who are in the U.S. illegally. The government is also suing King County over a policy that prohibits the Department of Homeland Security from using King County International Airport for deportation flights.

The attorney general said the Justice Department would be “robustly supporting” Homeland Security to use “all lawful means,” including federal subpoenas, to obtain information about suspects they are seeking to deport.

“These policies are textbook examples of misguided ideology triumphing over commonsense law enforcement, and it is the public and the police who pay the price,” Barr said.

Trump has been trying since he took office to punish sanctuary cities. In 2017 Jeff Sessions, then attorney general, said such cities would not receive grant money unless they gave federal immigration authorities access to jails and provide advance notice when someone in the country illegally is about to be released from prison. A federal judge blocked the punishment from being enforced, and the cities got the money.

Federal authorities have tried lawsuits before, suing the state of California over its sanctuary law in 2018. A federal appeals court rejected the bulk of the administration’s lawsuit, though Barr said Monday he was hopeful the government would win before the Supreme Court.

That hasn’t stopped Trump from criticizing the policies and noting, in bloody detail, certain cases where immigrants in the U.S. illegally have committed crimes. On Monday, speaking to the nation’s governors, Trump said that it was essential the country comply with immigration enforcement requests.

“Jurisdictions that adopt sanctuary policies and instead release these criminals put all of Americans in harm's way,” Trump said. “I know we have different policies, different feelings, different everything. But sanctuary cities are causing us a tremendous problem in this country. We have stone-cold killers that they don’t want to hand over to us and then they escape into communities and they cause, in some cases, tremendous havoc.”

But studies have shown immigrants are less likely to commit crime than U.S. citizens.

Barr also said Monday that federal officials were “meticulously reviewing the actions of certain district attorneys who have adopted policies of charging foreign nationals with lesser offenses for the express purpose of avoiding the federal immigration consequences of those nationals’ criminal conduct.” He also highlighted a lawsuit filed a few weeks ago against California’s governor and attorney general over a state law prohibiting private prisons.

In the run-up to the coordinated messaging campaign, a directive from headquarters encouraging “robust local media engagement from every district” caused unease among some public affairs officials in the U.S. attorneys’ offices, according interviews and to correspondence reviewed by The Associated Press.

Some in jurisdictions that aren’t home to sanctuary cities were reluctant to host events because they did not think the matter pertained to them, and others were concerned that a public announcement could agitate relations with local law enforcement agencies that depend on the cooperation of immigrant communities, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

But officials sent a note later reassuring districts they were under no obligation to hold a public event.

Some still did: Nebraska U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly held a news conference Monday to highlight the benefits of local and state law enforcement agencies cooperating with the federal government to enforce immigration laws. Kelly said public safety can be jeopardized if local officials refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and not notify federal officials when illegal immigrants are arrested.

“Each year, many Americans fall victim to crimes committed by illegal aliens because certain officials choose to prioritize their own ideologies over their sworn obligation to uphold the law,” Kelly said. “We don’t have any of those problems here in the state of Nebraska."

The U.S. attorneys in New York issued a joint statement, and some held news conferences, criticizing the state’s new “green light law” that allows immigrants to get drivers licenses without legal status. “Our citizens, lawful permanent and temporary residents, visitors and undocumented immigrants deserve better, and so do those who serve and protect them," the statement said.

In Chicago, federal prosecutors planned a tweet but no news conference.

Meanwhile, local officials in Erie County, New York, leveled criticism of the Trump administration's decision to restrict trusted travelers during a news conference of their own.

Robert Restaino, the mayor of Niagara Falls, called for the Republican delegation to persuade the Trump administration to change the decision.

"If a conversation has to be had on the other issues, then please, engage in that conversation. Don't penalize New York businesses and don't cripple communities that are trying to make sure that they can grow and continue to grow in their local economy," Restaino said.