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.”