Sanctuary city battle creates uptick in rare municipal lawsuits against U.S. government

Aug 15, 2017


Chicago city officials recently filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration after a perceived threat to their federal funding.

This move comes just weeks after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released new conditions for local jurisdictions to apply for a federal grant called the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, also known as the JAG program. The new conditions go into effect for the upcoming fiscal year.

These new conditions for the JAG program, which include giving the federal government a 48-hour notice before releasing certain detained immigrants, directly clash with the policies of some “sanctuary cities” that provide legal leniency to undocumented immigrants. Chicago is one of hundreds of sanctuary cities in the United States.

The lawsuit describes these new eligibility requirements as “intrusive,” and alleges that the new grant conditions are unconstitutional and would “ultimately make the people of Chicago less safe.”

JAG funding is intended for bettering local law enforcement and criminal justice systems. In the 2016 fiscal year, Chicago received $2.1 million from JAG, the second largest award given to a local government, following the top award to New York City. In total, $274.9 million was allocated toward the federal grant program last year.

Money aside, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is firm on maintaining Chicago’s status as a “welcoming city,” he said in a news conference.

“Chicago will not let our police officers become political pawns in a debate,” Emanuel said. “Chicago will not let our residents have their fundamental rights isolated and violated. And Chicago will never relinquish our status as a welcoming city.”

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel listening to remarks at a news conference. Source: Jim Young/File Photo

Lawsuits from Major Cities in 2017
Chicago is not the first city to take legal action against the Trump administration’s immigration policies. In late January, San Francisco suedthe Trump administration over Executive Order 13768, which the city deemed as unconstitutional.

This executive order, titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” was signed by President Donald Trump earlier that month. The order denies federal funding to entities that refuse to comply with federal law. “Sanctuary jurisdictions” are explicitly mentioned in the order as direct violators of federal law.

In its lawsuit, the city of San Francisco argued that the executive order was a violation of the Tenth Amendment, encroaching on its autonomy as a local government. The lawsuit goes on to describe that this order could mean the loss of “more than $1 billion in federal funds” to San Francisco.

Later in March, 34 other cities and counties filed against Executive Order 13768 in an amicus brief. The brief argues that the order is unconstitutional, vaguely worded in its definition of a “sanctuary jurisdiction,” and violates the due process of local governments. These 34 cities and counties include Los Angeles, West Hollywood, and Santa Monica, California.

Seattle also notably joined the legal fight against the order, calling the order not only a violation of the Constitution, but also “fatally ambiguous” and “incomprehensibly imprecise” in its lawsuit. Portland later joined Seattle’s lawsuit in June. Now, even the state of California has announced its intent to sue the Trump administration over its immigration policies.


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Highlights from the Department of Justice’s Technical Report on the JAG program for the 2016 fiscal year. Source: “Justice Assistance Grant Program, 2016,” Bureau of Justice Statistics

Before Cities, States Were More Likely to Sue
Lawsuits from state governments have been highly profiled in recent years. For instance, earlier this year, the states of Washington, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon jointly sued the Trump administration to block an executive order temporarily banning refugees and travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.

In 2016, multiple states sued the Obama administration following a nationwide directive to school districts to allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity. In two lawsuits, 21 states sued the federal government on this matter.

Fewer cities, however, have historically filed lawsuits against the federal government. Before the uptick in Municipal suits against the federal government this year, state suits were much more common.

According to Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman, cities rarely sue the federal government, as disputes are more commonly handled through administrative actions or acts of Congress.

“It’s more common for the federal government to sue cities—for [issues like] pollution, for example,” explained Simpson in an interview with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

That’s why the current lawsuits from Chicago and other sanctuary cities stand out as much as they do. In recent history, few lawsuits have been filed by cities against the federal government. Of those lawsuits, fewer have been about something as deeply impactful and widely afflicting as the issues at hand: millions of dollars in grant funding and the lives of the many undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.

Regardless of their ultimate efficacy, these lawsuits from sanctuary cities are, at the very least, symbolic measures. How the Trump administration and the parties involved choose to proceed in the wake of these lawsuits will irrevocably shape the immigration issue as it stands.

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