After eviscerating most of Arizona's strict immigration law in court last month, the Obama administration is now considering going after the other side by suing sanctuary cities to force them to cooperate with federal deportation efforts, an agency chief told Congress on Monday.
John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said he's asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to take legal action against Cook County, President Obama's home county in Illinois, to force it to turn over illegal immigrants for removal. He said he's now awaiting a final answer from the Justice Department.
"They wanted to see how certain pieces of court decisions came out. I expect to hear from them shortly, and I can tell you that resolving the issue in Cook County is very important for me," Mr. Morton testified to the House Homeland Security subcommittee on the border.
Cook County officials decided several years ago they did not want to cooperate with federal authorities' immigration efforts and stopped providing them information that could help with deportations of those booked into county jails.
Last year, the county enacted an ordinance officially halting compliance except in the most major of cases, and then only after they reached a financial agreement with the federal government to cover the costs.
Mr. Morton said that's effectively dried up all cooperation.
"Right now, it's not a question of Cook County releasing some individuals to us," he said. "They are releasing no individuals to us, including very violent offenders, and I just don't think that's good policy."
Feds are fed up
The Justice Department declined to comment on whether it is prepared to sue, but Mr. Morton said he and Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano are both pushing for action to force Cook County to comply.
The development could put Mr. Obama in a tough position. His administration moved quickly to sue Arizona and other states that enacted strict immigration laws over the past two years, arguing that only the federal government can set immigration policy. The Supreme Court last month agreed, overturning most of Arizona's law — though not the part that lets police detain illegal immigrants for pickup by federal authorities.
Even as he sued strict-enforcement states, though, Mr. Obama has not taken action against Cook County, which contains his hometown of Chicago, nor has he acted against the handful of other localities that have said they'll resist turning illegal immigrants over to the federal government.
A Cook County spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday, saying the county hadn't heard anything about having funding withdrawn or about negotiating with the Justice Department over compliance.
"We've not heard from anyone — ICE, Homeland Security, Justice," said Liane Jackson, a spokeswoman for county board President Toni Preckwinkle.
The detainer controversy dovetails with a broader concern over the Secure Communities program, created by Congress, which tries to check whether those arrested by police should be deported. Under Secure Communities, the fingerprint checks local police submit to the FBI are also checked against immigration databases, and if individuals are deemed priorities for deportation, the federal government asks that detainees be held.
Some states had tried to opt out of the fingerprint portion, but federal authorities said they have no choice.
Cook County is not yet covered by Secure Communities, but the program is expected to be running nationwide next year.
Mr. Morton told Congress the Obama administration has been trying to work the detainer issue out with Cook's leaders, but said those conversations have gone nowhere.
"I won't sugarcoat it. I don't think that that approach is going to work. And in full, we're going to need the help of others," he said.
Crackdown on Cook County?
One option would be to withhold federal aid that goes to help counties that end up holding criminal aliens in their jails.
Cook County received more than $13 million in federal money under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program from 2008 to 2011, putting it in the top 10 nationwide for SCAAP assistance.
But a spokesman for the county sheriff's department said it estimates the number will drop to $460,000 for federal fiscal year 2012.
Applications for reimbursement were due to the Justice Department last week, and Mr. Morton said he'll fight to cut Cook County's money.
"My own position is going to be that if we do not have access to those individuals, we will not be able to verify their request for the year," he said.
He got backing from both Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee.
"They cannot say, you know, we don't want you to do Secure Communities, but then at the same time they're requesting federal dollars for holding those prisoners," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.
"Mr. Morton also defended his agency's decision to end cooperation with local police in Arizona under the 287(g) program after the Supreme Court ruled on that state's law last month.
Hours after the ruling, Homeland Security said it would no longer cooperate with a half-dozen state task forces that allowed local police to enforce federal immigration laws.
Rep. Benjamin Quayle, Arizona Republican, said the timing looked "political" coming so soon after the court ruled.
But Mr. Morton said most of the 287(g) agreements had failed to produce any illegal immigrants ICE deemed worthy of deportation, and said it was going to cancel them at the end of this year anyway. He said the court decision gave ICE a chance to act sooner.
"We knew we were going to terminate those agreements. They were producing no removals," he said.
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