WASHINGTON — A long-anticipated meeting between New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has cleared up much of a long-standing dispute over the New Orleans Police Department's compliance with federal immigration law, Landrieu said Thursday.
The meeting was brokered by U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, who has publicly traded barbs with Landrieu over the city's handling of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, but who requested the meeting to try to settle differences between the city and President Donald Trump's administration.
Kennedy and Sessions "have come around to agreeing with the point we have made all along — New Orleans is not a 'sanctuary city' and the NOPD’s policies have maintained consistent compliance with 8 U.S.C. § 1373," Landrieu said in a statement, referring to a federal law that requires local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration agents.
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Sessions has accused New Orleans of being a "sanctuary city" because of a New Orleans Police Department policy that forbids officers from asking victims and witnesses about their immigration status during investigations.
Landrieu and NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison have repeatedly contended the department's policies adhere to the letter of the law. Harrison has said that going any further would risk alienating immigrants in the city, discouraging victims from reporting crimes and making witnesses more reluctant to come forward.
The policy is required by a sweeping federal court consent decree that oversees the NOPD. The consent decree was negotiated with the Justice Department during President Barack Obama's administration.
A Justice Department spokesman, Devin O'Malley, indicated that as of Thursday, the agency no longer considers the NOPD's policies at odds with federal law.
Sessions "was pleased to hear that the City of New Orleans has committed to sharing information with federal law enforcement authorities," O'Malley said.
Kennedy, although not contradicting the mayor's account, described the meeting in different terms than did Landrieu. The senator said the two sides "are closer to a resolution than we were yesterday," but he said Sessions requested cooperation from the city on two points before deeming New Orleans in compliance.
Sessions, according to Kennedy, requested that the city notify federal immigration agents at least 48 hours before releasing any arrested undocumented immigrants from jail, and also asked that agents be allowed to interview inmates while in custody.
Both those requests appeared to apply to the Orleans Parish jail, a facility run by the independent Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, which is covered by a separate federal consent decree. Sheriff Marlin Gusman was not included in Thursday's meeting.
It wasn't clear if either would apply to any NOPD or city operations.
A spokeswoman for Kennedy referred questions about the jail to Gusman's office. A spokesman for Gusman said he would look into whether the Justice Department had contacted the agency with either request.
Harrison and New Orleans City Attorney Rebecca Dietz joined Landrieu at the meeting.
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The Justice Department had repeatedly placed New Orleans on lists of "sanctuary cities" and threatened to withhold a specific pot of federal crime-fighting grant money over the city's policies.
As Kennedy noted in a Thursday afternoon conference call with reporters, the term "sanctuary city" has no exact legal definition and doesn't itself indicate a locality is violating federal law.
The dispute has instead hinged on whether the NOPD's policy — which discourages officers from asking about a person's immigration status during the course of investigations — is at odds with 8 U.S.C. § 1373, which requires local agencies to share information with immigration agents.
A number of U.S. Supreme Court rulings have cited the Constitution's 10th Amendment in placing significant limits on federal officials' ability to compel local agencies and police officers to enforce federal laws.
For months, the Landrieu administration and Sessions' Justice Department have traded legal memos arguing over whether the NOPD is in violation of the statute.
Both Kennedy and state Attorney General Jeff Landry have attacked Landrieu over the city's policy, arguing that it endangers public safety by potentially hampering federal efforts to deport illegal immigrants who've been arrested.
Kennedy said Thursday afternoon he may still consider New Orleans a "sanctuary city" because of the Police Department's policies. But he did not directly address questions about whether he believes the NOPD is in compliance with the federal law in question.
"I guess we can each define the term differently," Kennedy said, "but my definition is a city or local jurisdiction ... that, in bad faith, basically says, 'We're going to do everything we can not to cooperate with the federal authorities and not to enforce the federal immigration laws — or just not do enough.' "