WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department is taking fresh aim at a New Orleans Police Department policy limiting inquiries into residents' immigration status, the latest salvo in a running war on so-called "sanctuary cities" by President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu fired back, arguing — as he has several times before — that the city is in full compliance with federal law, while vowing that "the NOPD will not be the federal government's deportation force."
In a letter this week to Landrieu, the acting assistant attorney general threatened a pot of federal grant funding for crime fighting in the city and gave the city a "last chance" to prove the NOPD is in compliance with a section of federal law that requires local governments and police to provide information to federal immigration enforcement agents.
The Trump administration this week is targeting three other cities, also with Democratic mayors, for their policies on dealing with immigrants.
Federal judges have issued preliminary injunctions blocking two earlier attempts by the administration to withhold money from cities for a perceived lack of cooperation.
NOPD policies "may" violate the federal statute, according to the Justice Department, "depending on how your jurisdiction interprets and applies them."
Landrieu, however, suggested in a letter back to Sessions — co-signed by NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison — that the Justice Department's position amounts to "fear-mongering and false accusations." The Police Department policy in question, Landrieu added, "unambiguously" complies with federal law.
"We will build relationships between the NOPD and all community members," Landrieu wrote. "The city of New Orleans will not be sidetracked by caustic, political rhetoric that seeks to make us fearful of others and to scapegoat immigrants. The NOPD will continue to focus on the arrest and conviction of violent criminals, regardless of their immigration status."
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Landrieu and other city officials have repeatedly denied that New Orleans is a "sanctuary city" and have responded to previous findings by Sessions' Justice Department with letters certifying that the NOPD is in compliance with federal law.
The NOPD policy in question, which is governed by the department's federal consent decree, states that officers "shall not make inquiries into an individual’s immigration status" except in certain limited circumstances.
The Trump administration and other critics advocating an immigration crackdown — including Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry — have railed against so-called sanctuary cities, contending that their policies make it harder for federal authorities to deport potentially dangerous criminals in the country illegally.
But leaders in cities that have come under fire from the Trump administration have argued that turning police into immigration officers destroys trust between police and immigrant communities, making it less likely that members of those communities will report crimes or come forward with evidence.
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Four other jurisdictions in addition to New Orleans also received "last chance" warnings this week from the Justice Department: New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cook County, Illinois, which surrounds and includes Chicago.
Landry, in a press release Thursday, declared himself "the state’s most aggressive critic of sanctuary cities" and said he has repeatedly warned Landrieu over the policies.
"Unfortunately, the mayor has ignored my many warnings and continued to risk the safety, security and funding of our state’s citizens," Landry said. "Mitch Landrieu is playing politics at the expense of New Orleans."
Landry has repeatedly accused Landrieu of "playing politics," attacking the mayor with campaign-style ads, tweets and statements charging that Landrieu is failing to adequately respond to violence in the city.
The exchange between Landrieu and Sessions' Justice Department is hardly the first contentious battle over the NOPD's policies on immigration. When the Justice Department included New Orleans on a preliminary list of alleged "sanctuary cities" in April, the city's leaders accused federal officials of not "doing their homework."
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"If anybody in the Trump administration would actually do some research before firing off letters, they would see that the City of New Orleans has already provided the Department of Justice documentation that shows we are in compliance with federal immigration laws," Landrieu said in response to the April letter.
The Justice Department, however, apparently has dismissed the city's earlier responses.
Wednesday's letter demanded that the city certify that police officers aren't prohibited from contacting federal immigration authorities to ask about an individual's immigration status. It set an Oct. 27 deadline to respond.
The NOPD revised its policy last year to clarify that officers aren't barred from communicating with immigration officials and to require them to follow federal law.
But the policy also instructs cops not to ask about immigration status in the course of an investigation, something police officials have said is crucial to encouraging witnesses and victims in immigrant communities to cooperate with detectives and report crimes.
New Orleans City Attorney Rebecca Dietz concluded in a legal opinion that the NOPD policy does not violate federal law.
At an event in August, Landrieu hit back at claims from the acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director that some cities were releasing "serious criminal offenders." The mayor called those comments "just plain wrong."
"I'm not aware of any police department that releases violent criminals on the streets of America," Landrieu said at the time. "Irrespective of immigration status, our police departments every day are out there aggressively making sure the streets of America are safe."
The Trump administration's threats to yank federal grant funding for local jurisdictions they deem "sanctuary cities" have also triggered several lawsuits from targeted cities.
Chicago filed a lawsuit in August and a federal judge sided with the city, issuing a preliminary injunction blocking the federal government from pulling crime-fighting grants. The Justice Department is appealing the ruling, according to the Chicago Tribune.
A federal judge in April issued a similar injunction blocking an executive order by Trump that tried to pull a far broader set of federal grants from local law enforcement agencies that don't fully cooperate with federal immigration enforcement actions. Several agencies and local governments in California had sued over the order.