New Orleans

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President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities, raising questions about whether New Orleans' hotly debated policies toward illegal immigrants could jeopardize a critical portion of the city's budget. 

With the stroke of a pen, Trump declared that communities flouting federal immigration laws no longer will be eligible to receive federal grants "except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes." It's part of a broader immigration crackdown that includes the construction of a border wall with Mexico. 

The executive order gave John F. Kelly, the new Department of Homeland Security secretary, the authority to determine which jurisdictions are in fact sanctuary cities, an unofficial — and often controversial — designation that generally refers to municipalities with laws or policies preventing local officials from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

"We are going to restore the rule of law in the United States," Trump said.  

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The order could have devastating financial consequences for cities around the country that have been accused of violating federal law, often by declining to honor immigration "detainers" for inmates or by forbidding police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. In New Orleans, federal grants make up almost 11 percent of the city's annual budget.

But Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Wednesday that city leaders do not believe Trump's executive order "will endanger any federal funding, and there will be no change in our policy."

"The city does now and will continue to follow federal laws, and we will continue to make sure that we arrest and convict violent criminals, regardless of their immigration status," Landrieu said in a statement.

"But the NOPD will not be President Trump's deportation force," he added. "Doing so would require the NOPD to pull officers focused on fighting crime off the street."

Legal experts said the executive order is unlikely to have an immediate impact on New Orleans, in part because it remains unclear whether the city will be labeled a sanctuary city by the Trump administration. Some communities have acknowledged — and even embraced — the title, but New Orleans is not among them.  

"I think the only certain outcome right now is litigation and uncertainty," said Laila Hlass, a Tulane Law School professor. "There's no actual definition of sanctuary city, and there are a lot of issues with trying to take away federal funding from cities." 

Further muddying the waters in New Orleans is the sweeping federal consent decree that governs virtually every aspect of the city's Police Department. The reform plan, overseen by a federal judge, is intended to prevent discriminatory policing; it prohibits officers from beginning investigations based on their perception of someone's immigration status.

The NOPD altered its immigration policy last year to allow officers to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials under certain circumstances. Some critics, however, have said the changes didn't go far enough.  

"The city of New Orleans has policies that forbid the Police Department from inquiring about immigration status," said Dave Ray, communications director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "That is the heart and soul of a sanctuary policy." 

While Landrieu insists the city is in compliance with federal law, Ray's organization released a report Wednesday that listed New Orleans among 300 jurisdictions nationwide that have "sanctuary" policies on their books, saying the NOPD "generally discourages cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts."

Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, noted that city leaders lack the authority to change the NOPD's immigration policy on their own accord. If the new administration finds fault with the city's policing policies, he added, it could direct the Justice Department to pursue changes to the policies in federal court. 

"The city of New Orleans cannot be in violation of some rule of the attorney general if it's following a rule that the Department of Justice and U.S. District Court" have written into a policy manual, Quigley said. "They could go back into court and ask the court to have a hearing on that provision if they feel that it somehow creates a sanctuary city."

Conservative lawmakers also have criticized an Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office policy, which resulted from a lawsuit, that honors ICE "detainers," or requests to detain inmates for federal officials, only for inmates accused of major felonies. The policy also says that deputies "shall not initiate any immigration status investigation" or provide an inmate's release date to federal authorities. 

A spokesman for Sheriff Marlin Gusman said the agency is "in the process of reviewing the executive order and OPSO policies to ensure compliance with all federal laws."

Trump's executive order drew cheers from Republicans and criticism from immigration advocacy groups. The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice said it did not expect the order to affect federal funding in New Orleans, adding that the city's policy "improves community relations and lets all of us work together to keep our communities safe."

"However, we are deeply concerned by signs that the Trump administration plans to greatly expand an already expansive and cruel deportation regime," the organization said in a statement. "Canceling existing Department of Homeland Security priorities on deportation will mean sweeping up vast numbers of valuable, longstanding members of our communities without due process."

Trump's executive order also directed Homeland Security officials to release a weekly list of "criminal actions committed by aliens in any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens." It also ordered the director of the Office of Management and Budget to compile information on federal grant dollars going to "any sanctuary jurisdiction."

Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said he was pleased to see Trump "taking action to ensure our American people are not funding cities that willfully disregard our immigration laws."

"So-called sanctuary cities threaten public safety by providing a safe harbor for potentially dangerous illegal immigrants," Kennedy said. He added that he is co-sponsoring the Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act, "which would make sanctuary jurisdictions ineligible for certain federal grants and is in line with the president's actions to hold sanctuary jurisdictions accountable."

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry did not say Wednesday whether he still considers New Orleans to be a sanctuary city after the Police Department tweaked its policy last year. But he said he supports Trump's executive order.   

"We have an illegal immigration problem across the country and certainly in Louisiana," said Landry, who pushed unsuccessfully for a bill in the Legislature that would have allowed him to strip New Orleans of the ability to borrow money for infrastructure projects if it maintained its immigration policies. "I am tired of politics getting in the way of public safety, and I look forward to working with a president who puts American citizens first."

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.