Democrats Question Justice Dept. Power to Charge Sanctuary City Leaders

Democrats Question Justice Dept. Power to Charge Sanctuary City Leaders


Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Originally published by The New York Times

Senate Democrats are questioning the Trump administration’s latest salvo in its push for strict immigration enforcement: possible criminal charges for local politicians in so-called sanctuary cities.

The Justice Department is exploring “what avenues might be available” to criminally charge state and local officials who enact laws or guidelines limiting cooperation with federal immigration policies, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen confirmed during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week.

She said the request had come from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats of California and members of the committee, asked the Justice Department on Wednesday why it was looking into the matter.

“We ask for the legal and factual bases for this request, and information about the consideration of this request,” they wrote in a letter to both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and to Ms. Nielsen.

It was not clear how seriously the Justice Department was considering the question or whether it had begun investigating any politicians. A spokesman said only that the Justice Department was working with ICE to explore all options for holding sanctuary cities accountable.

The possibility of criminal charges prompted concern among civil rights attorneys who viewed it as a step toward the politicization of law enforcement.

“In free democracies, you can’t jail people for opposing the president’s policies, policies that courts have found to be lawful,” said Vanita Gupta, the chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the former head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department.


Senators Dianne Feinstein, left, and Kamala Harris, Democrats of California, have asked the Justice Department about the basis of a request that it consider criminal charges against local elected officials who enact so-called sanctuary cities policies. CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times

Presidents who have sought to intrude on the independence of the Justice Department have for decades been rebuked. President Trump has appeared to frequently cross that line, calling for investigations into Hillary Clinton and one of her aides and demanding that a career F.B.I. official politically aligned with her be removed from his job.

Talk of criminal charges for elected officials also exacerbated tensions between Mr. Trump and local politicians who disagree with his administration’s stance on immigration law enforcement, particularly in California, a state whose liberal residents have become a symbol of staunch opposition to much of the president’s agenda.

Last year, the Trump administration also threatened to withhold federal funding to sanctuary cities, including $28 million in law enforcement grants to state and local jurisdictions in California. In response, both the state and the city of San Francisco sued the administration. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra called the threat to withhold money “bullying.”

More recently, the state Legislature passed the California Values Act, which restricts cooperation with federal immigration agents. The law took effect on Jan. 1, drawing the ire of Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Mr. Homan said during an interview with Fox News that he had asked the Justice Department to “look into criminal charges for elected officials with sanctuary policies.” He also said that California officials should expect to see more ICE agents and deportation officers in the state.

“In every area, this administration has violated the norms of civil discourse and civil behavior,” said Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento and an outspoken opponent of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. “There is a difference between the give and take of partisan politics and what we are witnessing today.”

The city of Sacramento has filed briefs supporting lawsuits against the administration and has allocated more money to immigration services.

Ms. Harris and Ms. Feinstein asked Mr. Sessions to provide communications between the Department of Homeland Security or the White House asking the Justice Department to look into criminal charges for elected officials in sanctuary cities.

The senators said that they did not know of other cases “where duly elected state officials have been placed under threat of arrest and federal prosecution” for acting on the laws that their state legislatures have passed. They also asked that the Justice Department provide the legal basis it would use to prosecute politicians in sanctuary cities.

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