DOJ to Philly: Cooperate with us or lose grant money

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The Trump administration wants Philadelphia to prove it is cooperating with immigration officials.

If not, the Department of Justice could withhold the millions of dollars in grant money it sends to the city each year, Alan R. Hanson, acting assistant attorney general, said in a letter sent Friday to Mayor Kenney. The same letter was sent to officials in Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Cook County, Ill., and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The letter is the latest threat to cities that have labeled themselves sanctuary cities — often defined as municipalities that do not honor requests from federal immigration officials to hold people who are in local custody and are accused of violating immigration law.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a news conference last month that sanctuary cities make the country “less safe by putting dangerous criminals back on the streets.” He said that to receive grants from his agency, cities will have to certify that they are in compliance with a federal law banning local governments from restricting communication with the feds over their residents’ immigration status.

Mayor Kenney has been defiant and previously said that he will not turn over undocumented immigrants to federal officials without a criminal warrant.

Friday’s letter says that as a condition of receiving a Byrne JAG grant award for fiscal year 2016, Philadelphia is expected to submit documentation that certifies it is cooperating with federal immigration officials. Philadelphia received $1.7 million in JAG funds in 2016, which has been used mostly for police overtime and training, according to city officials.

“As your grant makes clear, this documentation must be accompanied by an official legal opinion from counsel that adequately supports the validation and must be submitted to the OJP [Office of Justice Programs] no later than June 30, 2017,” Hanson wrote. “Failure to comply with this condition, could result in the withholding of grant funds, suspension or termination of the grant, ineligibility for future OJP grants or subgrants, or other action, as appropriate.”

City spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said Friday, following receipt of the letter, that the city was already aware of the requirement to comply with the law cited in the letter.

“We believe there is nothing in our current policy that prohibits us from certifying,” ​Hitt said.

City Solictor Sozi Tulante previously said that Philadelphia might not be a sanctuary city despite what the mayor has said publicly.

“At the federal level, the definition of a sanctuary city is one that does not share… certain immigration information with federal officials. And our view is that we do share information,” Tulante said during a PICA meeting in March.

Nevertheless, the city hired two law firms to help the city understand the implications of the Trump administration’s threat to pull federal funding from sanctuary cities.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who in the past has advocated for increased JAG funding for Philadelphia, said Friday that the goal of the Byrne JAG is to “prevent and control crime.” He questioned the stripping of such money for Philadelphia. 

“Cutting funding that helps pay for lifesaving equipment and training for Philadelphia police officers makes no sense and will only make our communities less safe,” Casey said in a statement. “President Trump should spend less time threatening funding for law enforcement officers and more time actually fixing our immigration system by securing our borders and providing a fair pathway to citizenship for immigrants.” 

The DOJ gave Philadelphia $26 million in fiscal 2015, the last year for which a full analysis of grant funding is available. That same year, more than $340 million in federal grants was filtered into nearly two dozen city departments. The money paid for HIV counseling and testing, after-school snacks, analysis of narcotics evidence, services for neglected or abused youth, and the testing of DNA samples backlogged in the criminal justice system.

Miami-Dade County, which receives about $355 million a year in federal funds, reversed course on its sanctuary city designation in February. Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican, said at the time that his decision was a fiscal one. The Miami-Dade County Commission approved a resolution that dropped its “sanctuary” status and agreed to fully cooperate with federal immigration officials.

Nothing in Friday’s letter gave any concern to Philadelphia officials, Hitt said. Nor are they planning to reverse course on their current policies. 

“It wasn’t anything more than we weren’t already aware of,” Hitt said, referring to the reporting requirement attached to JAG. “It doesn’t change anything.”

Earlier this month, Philadelphia officials said they would like to place $54 million in new property tax revenue into a reserve account in case Philadelphia loses money because of federal budget decisions.

 Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this report. 

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