Political News

Democrats Question Justice Department Power to Charge Sanctuary City Leaders

Posted January 18, 2018 10:19 p.m. EST
Updated January 18, 2018 10:24 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are questioning the Trump administration’s latest salvo in its push for strict immigration enforcement: possible criminal charges for local politicians in 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 Sens. 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 Nielson.

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, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department.

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

Talk of criminal charges for elected officials also exacerbated tensions between 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, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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 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.”

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

Harris and Feinstein asked 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 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.