Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Trump Administration Backs Down on Sanctuary City Bluster. King County Says It’s About Time

The County reaffirms its commitment to immigrants and refugees and is unlikely to lose funding.

It seems that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has backed down somewhat on his threats against so-called sanctuary jurisdictions—cities and counties that limit cooperation with federal immigration agents.

On Monday, Sessions released a memo that dramatically narrows the definition of what a “sanctuary” city is and scales back the kinds of federal funding that those local governments could risk losing. In fact, there was never an official definition of the term until now. Monday’s memo specifies that, as far as the feds are concerned, it’ll just refer to those cities and counties that restrict mere communication between local officials and immigration officials. And instead of sanctuary jurisdictions risking all their federal funding — an enormous burden — they now would risk grants from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

This is a far cry from what President Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail. Last August, for instance, he pledged: “Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars.”

Seattle and King County have been on the Trump administration’s shitlist for a while, not the least because of their sanctuary status. So Monday’s news comes as a relief to some local officials — but not because they really thought federal funding was at risk. For King County Council Chair Joe McDermott, the relief comes from finally getting the federal government to admit that it’s been grandstanding since January.

“Here again, lo and behold, we have the administration backing down from their outrageous and unconstitutional efforts to divide us,” he says. They were “using scare tactics. They’ve realized that they’ve had to back down.”

Sessions’ memo states that the only jurisdictions at risk for losing funds are those that violate U.S. code 1373 by restricting communication between local officials and immigration officials. McDermott says King County is in compliance with that law. “We have never prevented communication with ICE,” he says. (Seattle also complies with 1373).

What the county does do is decline to honor so-called “ICE detainers without a valid, judicial warrant,” McDermott says.

ICE detainers — or ICE requests sent to local law enforcement to turn over undocumented immigrants who’ve been arrested — were the subject of the public shame list that the DHS released earlier this spring. The idea was ostensibly to urge local governments to feel bad for not complying with ICE detainer requests. King County, for one, did not feel at all bad about that. ICE detainers are thought to discourage immigrant community members from working with law enforcement. The requests have also been found to violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, so “it’s dubious how legal they are,” McDermott said at the time.

He adds now that he doesn’t believe it would ever be constitutional to cut all federal funding from a city or county, as Trump had promised, even if it is violating 1373. There would need to be an overlap between the funding source and the thing it’s funding, he says. “They can’t stop senior food bank funding simply because of an immigration issue.”

Meanwhile, the King County Council is continuing its efforts to be as much of a sanctuary jurisdiction as it can be. Also on Monday, the Council unanimously passed an ordinance that directs staff to square the county’s immigration and refugee policies with the guidelines put out by Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office in early April. The guidelines spell out precisely how local governments can be safe and welcoming, but still comply with federal law. King County wants to make sure it’s doing the best it can in that regard, according to McDermott. “We think we’re already a good place [for immigrants and refugees] — welcoming, affirming, and accepting,” he says. But the Council wants to nevertheless review county policies to see if there is “any place we can improve, do more, and do better.” County staff plan to release their recommendations on July 1.

The County Council also successfully passed its Resilience Fund legislation last month — an ordinance that earmarks nearly $1 million for local programs and nonprofits that support immigrants and refugees, from “Know Your Rights” workshops to legal defense. The fund begins with a one-time $750,000 contribution from the County and another $125,000 contribution from the Seattle Foundation. McDermott says the Council is working to leverage more, from both public and private entities, so that the County’s contribution can be “a catalyst for much more investment.” Interested nonprofits should check out the Seattle Foundation and King County’s Community and Human Services department for upcoming grant opportunities.

Still, if there’s one thing King County and pretty much anyone knows about the Trump administration, it’s that no one can rest on their laurels. Even Sessions wouldn’t let that Monday memo go by without a hint that he could change his mind later. The memo allows that the Justice Department could still refuse future grant funding to jurisdictions for other reasons, not just a shirking of 1373, and that it will be happy to continue public shaming of “state and local jurisdictions [that] are undermining our lawful system of immigration,” Sessions wrote.

Monday’s memo “doesn’t mean we’ve won,” McDermott says. “It doesn’t mean we can relax. We have to continue to be vigilant about this administration and their tactics.”

sbernard@seattleweekly.com

More in News & Comment

Hidden River Farms is 100 acres of farmland in Grays Harbor County. Photo by Lucia Wyss
Sowing the Seeds of Mental Health

Suicide is an epidemic amongst agricultural workers, but young farmers and state legislators are working to find solutions.

Seattle and King County Officials Want a Safe Injection Van

The mobile project—an alternative to permanent sites—still doesn’t have a defined timeline.

Western Washington Could See More Wildfires This Year

Lots of grass and warmer weather could make for worsening fire seasons.

An autopsy found that Tommy Le was shot twice in the back during an fatal encounter with a King County sheriff’s deputy. Photo courtesy Career Link
New Report Calls for Increased Transparency From King County Sheriff’s Office

The fatal shooting of Tommy Le served as a case study for researchers.

Charles Pillon sits inside one of the several buses on Iron Mountain. Photo by Caean Couto
The Last Days of Iron Mountain?

After battling King County government for decades, Charles Pillon may have finally lost the fight over his illegal 10-acre junkyard.

The public files into the City Council Chambers to voice their opinions prior to the vote to repeal the head tax. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Head Tax Repealed By Seattle City Council

After pressure from big businesses, city leaders cave on their plan to fund homeless services.

A scene from the 2017 Women’s March Seattle. Photo by Richard Ha/Flickr
County Sexual Harassment Policies Could Be Overhauled

One King County councilmember says male-dominated departments have “workplace culture issues.”

The Firs Homeowners Association celebrate outside of the Maleng Regional Justice Center after a ruling that buys them more time in their homes on June 7, 2018. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
SeaTac Mobile Home Owners Granted Stay From Eviction

The ruling allows about 200 residents more time in their homes, as they attempt to acquire the property.

Most Read