Feds threaten to subpoena Denver over “sanctuary city” policies protecting immigrants here illegally

Alex Wong, Getty Images file U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington on Dec. 15, 2017.

The U.S. Department of Justice threatened Denver and 22 other cities, counties and states with subpoenas Wednesday if they don’t turn over documents showing whether they are cooperating with federal immigration authorities by sharing legally required information.

The letters are the latest volley by the Trump administration in its drive to yank some federal grant funding from local and state governments with so-called “sanctuary city” policies that protect immigrants in the country illegally. Federal courts still are reviewing the legality of the move, and injunctions are in place holding up key parts of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new grant eligibility requirements.

Denver approved more restrictive immigration policies in August that prohibit most city cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It and the other targeted governments have received other information requests from the Justice Department in recent months.

Federal officials now are seeking documents relating to policies, orders or guidance to local law enforcement employees that restrict how they may communicate with the Justice Department, ICE and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A federal law bars local and state governments from restricting the sharing of information about a person’s citizenship or immigration status.

At risk is Denver’s eligibility for money awarded in the 2016 round of the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Programs and its application in the 2017 round. Denver typically spends about $400,000 to $500,000 a year from JAG grants.

City officials have maintained they are not violating federal law. A request for comment to Mayor Michael Hancock’s office, which was reviewing the new letter, was not immediately returned.

The letters arrived on the same day Hancock and many other mayors from across the country are attending a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C. Trump invited the mayors to the White House on Wednesday, but Hancock was among several who declined — in part because of the new Justice Department letters.

In a news release, Sessions urged the cities and other governments under review “to reconsider policies that place the safety of their communities and their residents at risk.”

“Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law,” he said. “We have seen too many examples of the threat to public safety represented by jurisdictions that actively thwart the federal government’s immigration enforcement — enough is enough.”

Other letter recipients included big cities — New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles — as well as smaller ones, such as Louisville, Ky.; Burlington, Vt.; Jackson, Miss.; and Berkeley, Calif. Letters also went to Sacramento County, Calif., and King County, Wash. (home to Seattle), as well as to the states of Illinois, Oregon and California.

City Councilman Paul López says a new immigration policy ordinance places Denver “on the right side of history.” He spoke during an ordinance-signing ceremony on Aug. 31, 2017, in the City and County Building.

Denver’s letter is addressed to Police Chief Robert White, who declared last year: “We do not do the work of ICE.”

The city hasn’t gone as far as some places in limiting cooperation with immigration authorities, but its approach shares a common intent: to assure immigrants in the city that police and city employees won’t put them at greater risk of deportation.

Hancock and City Council members have argued that resistant policies are needed so that crime victims and witnesses feel secure enough to report crimes and cooperate with police.

A new city ordinance approved by the council in August and a companion executive order issued by Hancock don’t allow city employees to ask about or share a person’s legal status. And the ordinance bars ICE agents from accessing secure areas of city jails for inmate interviews without a judicial warrant.

Unlike some cities, Denver’s policy is to provide notification to ICE before the release of an inmate it has flagged — though not usually within the 48 hours Sessions has required. The city ordinance also requires jails to provide affected inmates with a written advisement of their rights and to track what happens after their release.

Here is the new letter sent by the Department of Justice:

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