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City officials: Blocked DOJ funding ‘political extortion’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

US Attorney John Anderson speaks about the Department of Justice’s Operation Relentless Pursuit which will send federal agents and resources to combat violent crime in Albuquerque. (Elise Kaplan/Albuquerque Journal)

In December, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that Albuquerque was one of seven of the country’s most violent cities chosen to receive millions of dollars in grant funding, resources and personnel as part of a Department of Justice operation to combat crime.

However, it turns out the Albuquerque Police Department might not be able to receive those grants due to Albuquerque’s status as a “sanctuary city.”

And the Police Department has not received federal grant funding under the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative to test its backlog of untested rape kits or been able to use the federal grant it received in 2018 to hire a program director for the Crime Gun Intelligence Center.

It’s an issue local officials are denouncing as “political extortion.”

“The federal government had decided to send in resources – which we gladly want to work with – to assist us to lower these crime rates,” Deputy Police Chief Harold Medina said. “It kind of feels like political extortion that now they’re trying to give us limitations of how we can access this federal funding that we need to help keep the citizens of Albuquerque safe.”

U.S. Attorney for New Mexico John Anderson said he believes the conditions the DOJ is asking Albuquerque to comply with are reasonable. To be eligible to receive roughly $10 million in grant funding, the city must agree to certain conditions, namely that it will allow a federal audit of the forms city employees fill out saying they’re legally allowed to work in the United States and it won’t prohibit departments or employees from providing information to immigration authorities.

“The issue of the sanctuary city status comes in because before a state or local police department – for example, APD – can receive those federal funds they have to certify certain compliance with federal immigration laws,” Anderson said in an interview. “… Their refusal to sign the certification has precluded the city from receiving grant funding.”

‘Immigrant-friendly city’

In April 2018, the City Council passed a resolution “strengthening Albuquerque’s status as an immigrant-friendly city.”

The resolution says no municipal resources will be used to identify an individual’s immigration status, the city will not collect any information on a person’s immigration status, except when necessary, and if it collects that information it’s prohibited from disclosing it unless the city is served with a warrant.

City Councilor Pat Davis, who sponsored the resolution along with fellow Democrat City Councilor Klarissa Peña, said the council is not considering taking any action on the resolution.

“To deliberately withhold money that they say will help Albuquerque because we don’t want to sign off on an unconnected, unrelated political agenda in the president’s election year is just blatantly political bullying,” said Davis, who is president of the City Council. “And we’re not going to play ball with that. There is nothing at all in the way we fail to ask for immigrant status for letting kids into after-school programs that has anything to do with immigration or lowering crime.”

Peña echoed this sentiment in a statement, saying the resolution reaffirms the city’s commitment to civil rights regardless of an individual’s immigration status.

“Attorney General Barr’s attempt to strong-arm cities and states to give up our rights to set policy and regulations flies in the face of the intent of the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which entrusts police power to the states and their political subdivisions, i.e. municipalities,” Peña wrote. “It does not require states and municipalities to assist federal authorities in implementing and enforcing immigration law.”

However, newly elected City Councilor Brook Bassan – a Republican whose campaign included criticisms of Albuquerque’s sanctuary city status – said she plans to start a conversation about resolving the issue.

“I still stand by the fact that I do not believe we should be a sanctuary city,” Bassan said. “Now I feel like we have yet another massive reason why we should think about that and reevaluate it so we can get a lot of help from our federal government.”

Both U.S. senators from New Mexico called the withholding of grant funding “political games” and “strong-arm political tactics” on the part of the administration of President Donald Trump.

“There is a place for these debates, and that is the U.S. Congress – where the Senate has specifically voted against placing these kinds of conditions on federal funding,” Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, wrote in a joint statement. “We urge the Department of Justice to stop stirring up divisions in New Mexico communities and instead cooperate with our local law enforcement agencies to ensure they get the help they need to do their job.”

Operation Relentless Pursuit

The details of the DOJ’s Operation Relentless Pursuit have not been released, but federal authorities have said it will include a surge of federal agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as $71 million to be distributed among the cities.

U.S. Attorney Anderson sent a letter to the mayor in mid-January expressing his concern that the city will not get funding and met with city and police officials last week. He also wrote an op-ed about the funding for Monday’s Journal.

He said the immigrant-friendly policies affect the grant funding, but the Albuquerque area will still get an influx of federal agents.

“We don’t need any of the types of certifications that we’ve been talking about with respect to the grant funding in order to bring federal law enforcement to Albuquerque,” Anderson said in an interview this week. “The reason there are those conditions attached to the grant funding is because those are typical conditions that attach to grants that go from the federal government to state or local entities.”

Lindsay Van Meter, the managing assistant city attorney, said the conditions regarding immigrant-friendly cities were imposed by Trump after he took office.

“What DOJ continues to do is tweak the wording of the conditions slightly and put it on new grants,” Van Meter said. “This has been a campaign through several different grants by the DOJ to extort immigrant-friendly cities to follow their policies by withholding substantial funding for law enforcement. These conditions have never been attached in the past.”

The city still plans to apply for the grant and is considering litigation if it does not get the funding, Deputy Chief Medina said.

Other cities have sued the attorney general for imposing conditions related to immigrant-friendly cities on grant funding, and in some cases have been successful. In September, in a case in which Albuquerque was a plaintiff as a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a federal judge ruled that the attorney general cannot require cities to comply with conditions to receive grant funds.

Anderson said that even though APD might not be eligible, the New Mexico State Police or the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office might be able to get the funding for the Albuquerque area. Asked why BCSO, in the immigrant-friendly Bernalillo County, is eligible for the grants, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the Sheriff’s Office has said it will apply for the funding and the Journal should contact Sheriff Manuel Gonzales for specifics. A BCSO spokesman did not respond to questions.

“I don’t think we’d move on to another city,” Anderson said. “I can’t tell you what would happen to the funds. I certainly hope this isn’t the case, but if, for example, all those funds can’t come to Albuquerque, I don’t know if those funds revert or what happens to them. But certainly it’s my sincere hope that between all of our law enforcement partners here we get as many dollars to Albuquerque as we possibly can.”

Anderson said Operation Relentless Pursuit has nothing to do with enforcing immigration law.

“Operation Relentless Pursuit is about violent crime,” Anderson said. “Now I’ll say that when it comes to enforcing on violent crime, the department does not take into account immigration status. So if people who are committing violent crime are U.S. citizens, we’re going to go after them. If they’re undocumented aliens, we’re going to go after them.”

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