The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chicago sues Justice Department over new police grant rules targeting sanctuary cities

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson in 2016. Emanuel said the city plans to sue the Justice Department over new grant rules that target sanctuary cities.

Chicago officials on Monday filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Justice Department over a plan to withhold federal public safety grants to jurisdictions with so-called “sanctuary city” policies.

The lawsuit, announced by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is the latest strike in an ongoing legal battle between the Trump administration and cities and counties that refuse to help detain and deport people who are in the country illegally.

The challenge centers on new rules attached to the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program, which provides money to local governments to buy police vehicles and other equipment. The new rules include a requirement that localities give federal immigration authorities open access to jails and notify them 48 hours in advance of plans to release an inmate wanted on an immigration detainer.

Filed in Northern Illinois District Court, the lawsuit argues that the requirements “federalize” local jails and violate the constitutional rights of inmates.

“Chicago will not be blackmailed into changing our values, and we are and will remain a welcoming City,” Emanuel said in a statement late Sunday. “The federal government should be working with cities to provide necessary resources to improve public safety, not concocting new schemes to reduce our crime fighting resources.”

President Trump has threatened to go after sanctuary cities. This how state and local governments with sanctuary policies are responding to possible action. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/The Washington Post)

The Justice Department responded sharply Monday, accusing Chicago leaders of putting illegal immigrants above the safety of police and citizens.

“In 2016, more Chicagoans were murdered than in New York City and Los Angeles combined,” Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley said in an email. “So it’s especially tragic that the mayor is less concerned with that staggering figure than he is spending time and taxpayer money protecting criminal aliens and putting Chicago’s law enforcement at greater risk.”

The lawsuit comes as President Trump is trying to make good on his promise to crack down on unlawful immigration by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and more aggressively enforcing federal immigration laws. Among his priorities on this front is cracking down on “sanctuary cities,” which in the administration’s view undermine efforts to root out and deport violent criminals who are in the country illegally.

A tiny Texas border city is leading the charge against the state’s immigration crackdown

The cities, meanwhile, say they are not required to closely cooperate with federal immigration authorities and that doing so makes it more difficult to build trust in immigrant communities, where they want residents to feel comfortable offering tips and reporting crimes. They also argue that holding foreigners in jail at the request of immigration authorities could force them to keep inmates longer than is permitted under the Constitution.

Earlier this year, a federal judge blocked an executive order aimed at withholding federal funds from sanctuary cities. With the new policy on the Byrne grants, the Justice Department has tried to take a more modest, and potentially more legally defensible, step toward penalizing such communities. If allowed to go into effect, the new policy would begin in September.

The conflict puts Trump in something of a bind over conflicting priorities. While he has taken a hard-line stance against sanctuary cities, he also has tried to show that he is committed to fighting urban crime — a goal he has often emphasized by highlighting Chicago’s homicide rate, the highest in the nation at more than 400 killings so far this year. At one point, Trump proposed using federal resources to rein in the violence. Any attempt to withhold public safety funds from that city would seem to go against that parallel effort.

Chicago received $2.3 million last year through the grant program, funds that in the past the city has used to purchase SWAT equipment, police vehicles, radios and stun guns. It’s a relatively small amount of money for one of the largest cities in the country, but Chicago officials said the fight centers on “standing up to this administration that’s trying to make us make this awful choice that we don’t think is lawful and constitutional, and also keep them from doing this to other grants,” said Shannon Breymaier, a spokeswoman for Emanuel.

In the lawsuit, Chicago officials said the new conditions the Justice Department seeks to impose “would give federal officials the power to enter city facilities and interrogate arrestees at will and would force the City to detain individuals longer than justified by probable cause, solely to permit federal officials to investigate their immigration status.” That would conflict with Chicago’s “welcoming cities” ordinance, which prioritizes crime prevention and local law enforcement over federal immigration enforcement, and potentially would force them to violate the constitutional rights of foreigners held in city jails, the lawsuit says.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday that Chicago has a policy that obstructs the nation’s immigration system and has “demonstrated an open hostility to enforcing laws designed to protect law enforcement — Federal, state, and local — and reduce crime, and instead have adopted an official policy of protecting criminal aliens who prey on their own residents.” Sessions said in a statement that Chicago needs to recommit to the rule of law and to policies that roll back “the culture of lawlessness that has beset the city.”

“This administration will not simply give away grant dollars to city governments that proudly violate the rule of law and protect criminal aliens at the expense of public safety,” Sessions said. “So it’s this simple: Comply with the law or forego taxpayer dollars.”

This article has been updated.