Chicago Could Lose Federal Funds Under Scope Of 'Sanctuary Cities' Order

May 26, 2017
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Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent out a new memo this week to narrowly define what constitutes a sanctuary city. Here's why the definition matters. The Trump administration wants to block federal funds for cities that refuse to help as much as the administration would like to round up people in the U.S. illegally. A court rejected the administration's effort. Sessions hopes a more specific definition of the vague term sanctuary city will make them legal to target. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports on what's at stake for some cities.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Eleven million dollars - that's the amount of grant money officials in Chicago say they expect from the Department of Justice, or DOJ, this fiscal year. Chicago could ultimately lose it all. In his latest memo targeting sanctuary cities, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says, any jurisdiction that willfully refuses to comply with immigration law could likely lose out on money from the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. That's if, for example, they don't hand over information about the citizenship or immigration status of a person. Police departments typically use DOJ grants to hire officers and services they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford.

On a tour of one of the police district headquarters in Chicago this year, lots of new technology - video screens, computers and digital maps filled the room. Chief Jonathan Lewin punched the controls for one of the high-definition cameras monitoring Chicago's streets.

JONATHAN LEWIN: I'm going to (unintelligible), actually zoom in on a license plate just to show you the clarity of these high-def cameras.

CORLEY: Chicago police say intelligence centers like this one are crucial for cracking down on some of the gang fights and shootings that plague some neighborhoods. Chicago used city funds to pay for the center, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to get the new technology in other areas that need it with the help of a federal grant.

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RAHM EMANUEL: To help us financially take this to other districts with high gun violence in the city.

CORLEY: President Trump often targeted Chicago and other cities in speeches about violent crime. Chicago is among the jurisdictions warned in a previous Justice Department letter that said they could lose federal grant money if they didn't comply with immigration laws. It's a message the attorney general stressed again this week. Chicago remains defiant, launching an ad campaign called One Chicago to reassure immigrants. The website provides links to free legal aid, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the city's message is clear.

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EMANUEL: We're going to stay a sanctuary city. You are welcomed in Chicago as you pursue the American dream.

CORLEY: Sanctuary city is a loose term, but there are about 300 jurisdictions across the country that have policies limiting cooperation with ICE, the country's immigration agency. New Orleans, which does not call itself a sanctuary city, still has a policy, which landed it on Trump's list. Zach Butterworth, an aide to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, says the city complies with immigration laws, so it's not too worried about losing grant money.

ZACH BUTTERWORTH: But the idea that they would take money from cities, the money that they're using to fight crime - and if you look at the president's executive order that set all this rolling, he said, I'm not going to go after law enforcement grants.

CORLEY: And the money that could still be at risk in New Orleans is about $3 million to $4 million in Justice Department grant funds it receives every year. New Orleans' badly depleted police department recently hired nine officers with federal funds. Butterworth says the city also uses grants from the Justice Department to support domestic violence and child sex abuse victims and the city's body camera program.

BUTTERWORTH: It helps reduce the DNA rape kit backlog. That should be a priority for all of us. It's certainly a priority for Mayor Landrieu. And so we think they should continue to fund it. We think they should double the funding for all of these programs.

CORLEY: What will determine whether jurisdictions at odds with this latest version of President Trump's executive orders stand to lose millions of dollars or nothing will be the final rulings that come from the lawsuits making their way through the courts.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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