The Justice Department and the city of West Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday announced they had settled a legal dust-up over the city’s “sanctuary” policies for those in the country illegally — reaching an agreement that allows both sides to claim victory.
As part of the settlement, the Justice Department confirmed that the city is in compliance with federal law, and thus its federal grant money is safe. In return, the city agreed to drop its lawsuit against the department and issued a memo to city employees clarifying that its laws do not restrict information sharing with federal immigration authorities.
The city and the Justice Department issued identical news releases saying the agreement “protects public safety by providing assurance that West Palm Beach’s Resolution, as interpreted by West Palm Beach, does not violate” the law and permits immigration authorities “to receive the information [they] may need to take custody of aliens who commit crimes.”
West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio (D) said in an interview that she believed the city had an “excellent case” and that she felt the memo merely restated what the city had said all along: Its policies were not meant to supersede obligations under federal law.
“We have always believed that our resolution was lawful, and we just reiterated what was already in the resolution,” Muoio said. “We’re in a place where we wanted to be.”
The Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has waged an aggressive crackdown on “sanctuary” jurisdictions — threatening to withhold grant money from places with policies that hinder immigration enforcement and even suing the state of California over its laws benefiting those in the country without proper documentation.
Judges in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia have blocked various pieces of the Trump administration’s effort, however.
West Palm Beach had filed a lawsuit against the administration last month, a few weeks after the Justice Department threatened it and other jurisdictions with a subpoena for documents detailing their compliance with a particular federal law about sharing of immigration information.
If the city was found to be out of compliance, it could have lost significant law enforcement grant money. The city asked a federal judge to certify that it was following the law.
At issue were city resolutions that barred employees from asking about people’s immigration status or sharing information on immigration status with others. That might have been construed as running afoul of a law that prohibits local governments from restricting the sharing of that information with federal immigration authorities.
But officials in West Palm Beach argued their policy had a specific exemption if the information sharing was required by federal law.
The memo the city issued clarified that point.
“All personnel are reminded that you may share — and it is consistent with City Resolution 112-17 and federal law to share — with federal authorities, including the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, any and all information, including information regarding citizenship and immigration status, to which you have access or knowledge as a result of the performance of your job duties for the City of West Palm Beach, regarding any individual,” the memo said.
An administration official said the city was trying to “avoid a loss in the courts” by issuing new guidance to employees, though the settlement gives the city much of what it wanted. Though a judge won’t now declare it is in compliance with the law, the Justice Department did by way of a letter saying it had found “no evidence” the city was violating its legal obligations.
Muoio said it was “absolutely not true” that city officials were afraid of losing in court.
“The Justice Department is misrepresenting this significantly,” she said.
The settlement paves the way for the city to keep receiving grant money. Over the past five years, it has accepted nearly $400,000 from the program at issue. Muoio said she did not know what the city had spent on the lawsuit, but she called West Palm Beach a “community of immigrants” that strives to make all people feel safe.
“We are pretty passionate about this here,” she said.