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Cities face federal cuts in grant money over immigration law

WASHINGTON – Cities and counties in New Mexico and across the nation that disregard a specific federal immigration law could lose Justice Department funding, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned on Monday.

Jeff Sessions

Jeff Sessions

Sessions, following up on the release of last week’s Department of Homeland Security memo identifying jurisdictions that are not in compliance with federal criminal detainment policy, said the Justice Department would issue grants only to jurisdictions that can “certify” they comply with a law barring local governments from prohibiting employees from sharing a person’s immigration status with federal immigration officials.

The attorney general said the Justice Department would even attempt to “claw back” or recoup grant money already awarded if the local governments can’t prove compliance. The Justice Department is expected to issue more than $4 billion in grants to cities, counties and states this year.

“I strongly urge the nation’s states and cities and counties to carefully consider the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to enforce our immigration laws,” Sessions said at an appearance in the White House briefing room. “Public safety and national security are at stake.” In 2016, the Justice Department awarded money for 50 projects totaling $31,462,944 in New Mexico.

The DHS report released last week noted that no New Mexico counties currently comply with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement requests to detain in jail those arrested for crimes if they are eligible for deportation. But detainment policy is not included in the federal code Sessions cited Monday. Sessions said he aimed to clarify a similar policy adopted by the Obama White House last year.

“I don’t believe this will affect Albuquerque,” said Mayor Richard Berry. He said Albuquerque gets about $5 million a year in DOJ grants, “everything from cops grants to bulletproof vests.”

“As long as I’ve been mayor, we’ve allowed ICE to have a presence at our prisoner transport center,” Berry added. He said the city doesn’t have the resources to enforce federal immigration law, but that ICE “does have access to prisoner information when someone is arrested in the city of Albuquerque.”

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, an outspoken critic of the president’s immigration policies, said Santa Fe also is compliant with federal law – it isn’t withholding information on anyone’s immigrations status because the city doesn’t ask for it, he said.

“First, we’re not under any obligation by the federal government to administer or enforce any immigration policies that they bring forward,” he said. “Secondly, our policy is not to ask people for their immigration status or collect information on people. We’re compliant because we don’t make it a pattern or practice to collect or withhold information.” Gonzales said evidence suggests cities that have adopted sanctuary policies are more safe. “It doesn’t help when the president of the United States demonizes minority groups,” Gonzales said. Also Monday, Santa Fe and 34 other cities filed an amicus brief supporting a California lawsuit challenging Trump’s executive order against sanctuary cities.

Eric Ruzicka, an immigration specialist at Dorsey & Whitney, a Washington-based international law firm, said Sessions’ proposal to withhold or recoup grant money is likely to face significant legal challenges. “The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the federal government may not commandeer state government employees or resources to implement federal policy,” he said.

Journal staff writers T.S. Last and Martin Salazar contributed to this story.