As Trump pushes to tighten immigration, courts and cities push back

Immigration attorney activist Mony Ruiz-Velasco speaks at a rally Wednesday afternoon outside the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Chicago office. A group of immigration advocacy groups gathered there to criticize President Donald J. Trump's executive actions on immigration.

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Immigration attorney activist Mony Ruiz-Velasco speaks at a rally Wednesday afternoon outside the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Chicago office. A group of immigration advocacy groups gathered there to criticize President Donald J. Trump’s executive actions on immigration.

President Donald J. Trump moved on Wednesday to push cities to crack down on immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally, even as a growing number of courts and cities contend that the government policies have in a series of instances violated the Constitution.

Trump’s latest order seeks to force local cities and counties to cooperate with federal immigration efforts or lose federal funding, setting up a showdown with Chicago and Cook County, among other jurisdictions across the country, that have adopted so-called “sanctuary” status.

“We’re going to strip federal grant money from the sanctuary states and cities that harbor illegal immigrants,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, “The American people are no longer going to have to be forced to subsidize this disregard for our laws.”

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Trump’s latest executive order, which fulfills a campaign promise, authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to publish a weekly report of jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Both the county and its largest city have ordinances in place that direct local authorities not to question those arrested about their immigration status, nor to hold them in custody on behalf of federal immigration officials without a judicial order. The city’s ordinance provides exceptions when the suspected undocumented immigrant has been charged or convicted of a felony, or is found on the police department’s gang database.

In November, U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee ruled in a class action lawsuit that ICE does not have the authority to ask local police and sheriffs to hold suspects believed to be in the country illegally unless they obtain a judicial order. Lee’s ruling, which affects all such requests issued out of ICE’s Chicago office and is expected to be appealed by the federal government, is one of several rulings by judges in recent months that have found the government enforcement was overly broad.

Since Trump’s election, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has repeatedly stated his commitment to keeping the city’s sanctuary policy in place despite the president’s funding threats.

As Trump was signing the orders in Washington, a group of immigration rights advocates gathered outside the federal immigration enforcement agency’s building in Chicago to protest Trump administration policies.

“Federal courts have consistently ruled that detainer policies which require local law enforcement to hold immigrants for apprehension by immigration agents violates federal law,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center. “States and localities that have participated in these programs have every right to say that this is unlawful.”

The executive order also reinstates the discontinued Secure Communities program, an immigration enforcement program that encouraged local authorities to act as de facto immigration agents. The program, which was ended during the Obama administration in November, 2014, was often accused of encouraging racial discrimination among police officers and violating constitutional rights.

“We’re going to restore the popular and successful Secure Communities program which will help ICE agents target illegal immigrants for removal,” Trump spokesman Spicer said at the press briefing Wednesday.

At the rally Wednesday, immigration attorney Mony Ruiz-Velasco said the program encouraged police to racially profile civilians they suspected of being unauthorized immigrants, causing immigrants to fear reporting crimes to local police.

“We saw a lot of pre-textual traffic stops,” she said. “A lot of people were never even cited for those offenses, they would just be turned over to Immigration.”

When the Obama administration ended the program, replacing it with the Priority Enforcement Program, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson explained why: “Governors, mayors, and state and local law enforcement officials around the country have increasingly refused to cooperate with the program,” Johnson wrote in a department memo, after a series of lawsuits accusing the local authorities of illegal conduct for their role in improperly holding people without warrants.

In April, 2014, after a U.S. magistrate judge in Oregon found a woman had been illegally held on an immigration detainer, several Oregon sheriffs refused to honor any more requests that they detain people without a warrant.

A month earlier, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that ICE detainers for local departments to hold people suspected of being illegally in the country should be treated as requests, not binding on the departments.

And this week a U.S. district judge in Rhode Island ruled a U.S. citizen was illegally held for an extra day after a judge had ordered her release, while federal officials investigated her immigration status.

Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of P.A.S.O., an immigration advocacy group in the western Chicago suburbs, has been spearheading efforts to pass sanctuary-like ordinances in jurisdictions outside Chicago. “Welcoming Village” ordinances are being considered in Oak Park and Melrose Park.

At the rally Wednesday, Ruiz-Velasco and other activists called for more cities and counties to pass such policies.

“Any effort aimed at punishing welcoming cities or targeting vulnerable communities on the basis of race, religion, refugee, or immigration status will be faced with mass public and legal resistance,” she said. “The federal government cannot force local officials to cooperate or to become de facto deportation officers.”