Feds To Louisville: Prove You’re Not A ‘Sanctuary City’

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Laura Ellis / WFPL

Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad with Mayor Greg Fischer at a news conference in September 2016.

The U.S. Department of Justice is pushing back on cities it views as soft on immigration enforcement, challenging Louisville this week to prove its new local law doesn’t amount to “sanctuary” policies.

In a letter dated Nov. 15, Acting Assistant Attorney General Alan Hanson told Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer that his office is “concerned” a recent ordinance will jeopardize the city’s eligibility to continue receiving a federal grant for police equipment.

The DOJ sent similar letters this week to 28 other jurisdictions across the country.

Last month, the Louisville city council passed an ordinance that says public safety officials can only assist federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents with a warrant signed by a judge, or if ICE “articulates a reasonable suspicion of a risk of violence” or when there is a clear danger to the public.”

The change followed a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting article in September that revealed ICE agents had asked Louisville Metro Police Department officers to serve local warrants, make traffic stops and knock on the doors of non-violent offenders wanted for immigration offenses. The police chief quickly wrote a policy clarifying LMPD’s relationship with ICE. The ordinance mirrored that policy.

Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter said the office hasn’t received the letter yet, but it is already drafting a strong response defending the ordinance.

“There is nothing in that ordinance that should cause any concerns to the federal government,” Poynter said. “It still allows Immigration to do the work they need to do in our community and it defines what LMPD’s role is, and is not.”

The DOJ, in its letter, referenced a grant worth roughly $587,000 for replacing mobile data terminals in police cars, according to Poynter.

“This is money we use to fight crime,” Poynter said.

Poynter noted that the city hasn’t declared itself a sanctuary city, the term wasn’t used in the ordinance and nothing in the ordinance bars communication with ICE.

The ordinance also prevents the city’s Department of Corrections from entering into a 287(g) agreement — a federal program that deputizes local police or sheriff’s deputies to enforce immigration laws. Other Metro employees are required to only ask about immigration status if they’re specifically required to do so by law or to assess eligibility for a program.

The city’s response is due to the DOJ on Dec. 8.

Cities that provide so-called sanctuary to undocumented immigrants have become a flash point across the country. President Trump’s administration has sought to penalize municipalities that defy the federal government’s orders.

In a press release announcing the letters issued to 29 cities, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged jurisdictions to comply with federal law Section 1373, which mandates local governments communicate with and provide information to federal agencies.

“Jurisdictions that adopt so-called ‘sanctuary policies’ also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “I urge all jurisdictions found to be potentially out of compliance in this preliminary review to reconsider their policies that undermine the safety of their residents.”

In Louisville, immigrants’ rights groups and others lobbied city leaders in recent months for the policy change. The advocates continue to lobby for a true sanctuary city declaration.

Sarah Nuñez, the assistant director of the University of Louisville’s Hispanic and Latin Initiative, said last month that the policy would make the city’s immigrants feel safe in their homes, schools, jobs and neighborhoods.

“We need policies that provide us protection in these harsh environments,” she said.

Kate Howard can be reached at khoward@kycir.org and (502) 814.6546.