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Sanctuary Cities Sue Justice Department Over Threat To Deny Federal Funding


The crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities could be the next big legal battle for the Trump administration. Opponents fought Trump's travel ban all the way to the Supreme Court, where it will be heard this fall. Now, as we heard, sanctuary cities are suing over the administration's threat to deny funding if they don't cooperate with federal immigration authorities. For a look at the legal landscape beyond Chicago is NPR's John Burnett. Hey there, John.


CORNISH: So why is this such a priority for the administration - dealing with sanctuary cities, specifically?

BURNETT: Right. Well, Trump - he often highlights violent crimes committed by immigrants who have been released from jail. But for his immigration agents, it's even more basic. They depend on the city and county jails to tell them who the undocumented immigrants are who've committed crimes. They need jails to cooperate so they can take these people into custody and put them in deportation proceedings. If all the jails across the country don't play ball, especially in major cities with big populations of unauthorized immigrants like Chicago and LA and Houston, then immigration agents have a tougher time doing their job.

CORNISH: So are we looking at a movement of cities here? Is Chicago one of many to push back?

BURNETT: Well, I mean Trump is facing more and more lawsuits, challenging these tough measures against sanctuary cities. For instance, earlier this year, the first lawsuit came out of northern California. The cities of San Francisco, Richmond, Santa Clara filed suit. Then came Seattle and two cities in Massachusetts, and they were successful.

In April, a federal judge in San Francisco issued an injunction blocking the Justice Department from enforcing Trump's sweeping executive order against sanctuary cities. Back then, the cities interpreted Trump to mean he intended to block all federal funds from sanctuary cities, even highway and housing and Medicaid money. And the judge said that that was just too broad.

CORNISH: So help us understand the timeline here. What's different about the lawsuit from Chicago?

BURNETT: OK. So two weeks ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions comes out and says sanctuary policies make us less safe. They protect criminal aliens, and they encourage illegal immigration by creating safe zones for the undocumented. At the same time, the Justice Department announces new rules. They say sanctuary cities and states have to fall in line, or they won't see any more federal crime fighting grants. And cities that refuse to open their jails to ICE officers risk losing about $257 million. That's what the grants totaled last year.

A big sticking point is just how long local jails can hold immigrants in jails. I think you heard the superintendent talking to you about that.


BURNETT: Justice is telling local officials to detain immigrants for 48 more hours so ICE can pick them up. And local officials say if someone posts bail, then they have to let them go. So Chicago's is the first lawsuit by a sanctuary city that challenges these new rules.

CORNISH: In the meantime, there are states - right? - that are taking their own actions.

BURNETT: Right. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has signed an anti-sanctuary cities law that has enraged Latino officials and immigrant advocates here. And it goes even further than Jeff Sessions. Texas Senate Bill 4 calls for stiff fines and even criminal charges against the police chief or a county sheriff who does not fully comply with immigration agents.

So far, nearly every major city in Texas has joined a federal lawsuit challenging that state law is unconstitutional. So while we're watching and waiting to see what a federal judge does in Chicago, we're also watching a federal judge in San Antonio to see what he - how he rules on this Texas law, which is scheduled to go into effect only in three weeks on September 1.

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett. John, thank you for your reporting.

BURNETT: You bet, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.