Philly sues Sessions over sanctuary-city crackdown

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Philadelphia is suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions in federal court over his attempt to withhold grant money from sanctuary cities.

Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and the state of California have also filed similar suits over new restrictions on a federal grant that funds police training and overtime. Sessions announced the restriction in July.

Under President Barack Obama, city officials were told that, to keep the grant, they would have to certify they were compliant with a federal law banning any local laws that prohibit communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement about their residents’ immigration status. City officials have said they had no problems obtaining the grant money in the past. Last year, the city received $1.67 million.

But Sessions has added two additional requirements to that grant. When ICE requests it, cities must give immigration agents two days’ notice before releasing undocumented immigrants from custody. And they must allow ICE access to any detention facility to ask immigrants held there “about their right to be or remain in the United States.”

“All of this is political,” Mayor Kenney said Wednesday. “It’s Sessions trying to cozy up to Trump because he was in the doghouse.” (Sessions had announced the restrictions during a week of near-constant criticism from Trump over his decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the election.)

Sessions and President Trump have argued that sanctuary city policies release dangerous criminals into communities. But city officials have countered that undocumented immigrants receive no special treatment under the policies, which they say have cut down on crime and built trust between immigrant communities and police.

Kenney said that immigrants have been key to Philadelphia’s success in recent years — reversing 50 years of population loss and swelling the workforce.

Trump, Kenney said, has “no interest in the people who live here, and he’s trying to score political points with the 32 percent of his base he still has.”

City solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante, a former assistant U.S. Attorney, said the city will argue in court that only Congress has the power to impose restrictions on grants — and that Sessions’ restrictions are unconstitutional anyway.

“The grants have nothing to do with enforcing immigration laws,” Tulante said. “There’s no federal statute that authorizes Sessions to apply these conditions. The Trump administration is entitled to disagree with our policies, but they cannot make up rules beyond the directives of Congress.”

Tulante said the city has “good reasons” for its sanctuary city policies, which forbid police from asking the immigration status of people they encounter and require ICE to get a warrant before the city will release an inmate into its custody. The city also does not give ICE notice before releasing an inmate.

Most of the people in Philadelphia’s prison system are awaiting trial or sentencing, Tulante said, and the city itself doesn’t get notice if an inmate makes bail or is ordered released by a judge. Those who are serving out their sentences in city jails, Tulante said, are generally not targeted by ICE. And agents are able to interview prisoners in city jails — but the city asks inmates if they want to speak with ICE beforehand, and notifies them of their rights.

The new restrictions, he said, are an “attempt to make our prison officials part of federal immigration law and enforcement.”

The city will still apply for the policing grant despite the restrictions, officials said, and in the meantime is asking a federal judge to block the restrictions on the grant entirely.

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