The Justice Department unleashed a legal assault on sanctuary jurisdictions across the country Monday, filing a new round of civil lawsuits asking judges to overturn the policies, and warning state and city officials they could soon face their own criminal charges for harboring illegal immigrants.
Lawsuits were filed against California, New Jersey and King County, in Washington, each of which has adopted novel ways of interfering with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s ability to arrest, detain and deport illegal immigrants.
Attorney General William P. Barr also said his department is taking a look at state and local prosecutors who pursue lesser charges against illegal immigrants in order to keep their rap sheets cleaner, keeping them off ICE’s radar.
And Mr. Barr said he’s ordered a review to see whether the Justice Department can use a criminal law “that prohibits the harboring or shielding of aliens in the United States” against jurisdictions that have sanctuary policies.
“Today is a significant escalation in the federal government’s efforts to confront the resistance of sanctuary cities,” Mr. Barr said in remarks to the National Sheriff’s Association, where he unveiled the legal barrage. “We will consider taking action against any jurisdiction that, or any politician who, unlawfully obstructs the federal enforcement of immigration law.”
The Trump administration has been in a running battle with sanctuary cities, whose number has grown exponentially as anti-Trump state and local governments seek new ways to thwart the president’s get-tough immigration policies.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had tried to cut off some grant funding for sanctuary cities, but courts across the country rejected that policy as illegal.
Mr. Sessions also raised the possibility of using the criminal alien harboring laws against sanctuaries, though he never followed through.
Mr. Barr on Monday signaled the administration’s patience has run out as the sanctuary movement has shown no signs of letting up.
Indeed, states and cities seem to be competing with each other to find new ways to refuse to work with ICE.
One of those is King County Executive Dow Constantine’s 2019 ban on ICE detainee flights taking off or landing at King County International Airport – Boeing Field, a major regional airport for ICE activities.
Federal prosecutors said the flight ban has disrupted deportation operations throughout the Northwest.
“King Country’s action was improper, it was illegal,” said Brian T. Moran, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington.
In New Jersey, the Justice Department’s lawsuit challenges a state attorney general directive that requires local law enforcement to tell immigrants when they are being released — but bans them from telling the same information to ICE in many cases.
U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said the case “seeks to restore the balance of power between the federal and state governments” by reasserting the supremacy of federal law.
Mr. Barr also highlighted a lawsuit brought against California late last month challenging state law AB32, which outlaws private prisons.
That has severely dented ICE, which heavily relies on those facilities to hold migrant detainees in the state.
Under the ban, ICE says it must now ship detainees out of state, then pay to shuttle them back and forth for their court dates. The ban also hurts the migrants themselves, because they are held far from family, ICE says.
“California has every right to decide how it wants to manage its own prisoners and detainees, but it has no authority to dictate to the federal government how it conducts federal operations,” Mr. Barr said.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal blasted the new lawsuit against him as election-year politics, pointing out he issued the directive in 2018, and suggested it was odd that it was only now being challenged.
“What’s disappointing is that my former colleagues at the Justice Dept have agreed to go along with this election year stunt,” he said on Twitter.
In King County, Mr. Constantine accused Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr of “bullying” him, and defended his attempt to use local rules to shape federal policy.
“Mass deportations raise deeply troubling human rights concerns, including separation of families, racial disproportionality in policing, and constitutional issues of due process,” he said.
He said the local airports voluntarily refused to serve ICE flights, and said they are working with federal aviation officials on working out issues over the policy. He said Mr. Barr’s lawsuit circumvents those discussions “for the sake of grabbing headlines.”
The Justice Department moves come a week after Homeland Security announced punishment for New York, where a new law grants driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, while banning ICE and Customs and Border Protection from access to the state’s motor vehicle records.
In response, CBP announced New Yorkers are no longer able to sign up for some trusted traveler programs that speed people through customs at airports and border crossings.
New York on Monday fired back, with Attorney General Letitia James filing a lawsuit claiming her state is being singled out.
She pointed to other states that have similar laws granting licenses to illegal immigrants.
Homeland Security counters that what sets New York apart is the ban on accessing records. Those records are the only place to find information on DUIs and other serious traffic offenses, which are part of the checks required to sign up for trusted traveler programs.
No checks, no signups, Homeland Security says.
Ms. James, in the new lawsuit, says they do share criminal information with the FBI, so Homeland Security should be able to get records from the bureau.
New York’s four U.S. attorneys weighed in Monday with a statement backing up Homeland Security and criticizing the state.
U.S. attorneys in other states with sanctuary battles, from Oregon to North Carolina to Maine, also issued statements backing Mr. Barr’s new legal push.