Attorney General Jeff Sessions has set a deadline for some jurisdictions to prove that they cooperate with federal immigration law. Credit: Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Nine local governments that the Department of Justice has highlighted as possible “sanctuary” jurisdictions have a month to prove that their local policies don’t violate federal law.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has threatened to cancel almost $300 million in federal grants to the jurisdictions on the Justice Department’s list, if they are in fact operating as sanctuaries from federal immigration enforcement.

The fuzzy definition of the term “sanctuary” has been equally frustrating to people for and against protections for undocumented people. That’s become a problem as some states, and President Donald Trump, have tried to outlaw sanctuary cities.

In his ruling blocking Trump’s executive order in April, U.S. District Judge William Orrick noted that federal law “does not define ‘sanctuary jurisdiction,’ ” and “the term is not defined anywhere in the Executive Order.”

Sessions cleared up some of that confusion on May 22, announcing that he’d settled on a new working definition for the term: “For purposes of enforcing the Executive Order, the term ‘sanctuary jurisdiction’ will refer only to jurisdictions that ‘willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373.’ ”

That’s the law that says local governments can’t stop police from sharing an individual’s status with immigration officials.

Some local law enforcement agencies have approved policies against holding a person in the local jail at the request of immigration officers via a detainer requestThe memo seemed to acknowledge that such requests are only voluntary – though Sessions’  budget proposal, also issued last week, would change that.

In April, the Justice Department sent letters to nine jurisdictions it suspected were violating section 1373, asking them to prove that their policies weren’t against the law, or risk losing their federal grants. The department asked for a response from the jurisdictions by June 30.

(They are Chicago, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia; Clark County, Nev., Cook County, Ill., Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Milwaukee County, Wis.; and the state of California.) 

Most of the nine have policies against cooperating with detainer requests, but don’t limit officers’ abilities to “communicate” with immigration enforcement agents.

Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that all nine jurisdictions are expected to prove they’re complying with the law by the end of next month. 

“The memo does not impact the requirement to certify compliance with 1373 – in fact, it reaffirms it,” Prior wrote.

California’s Board of State and Community Corrections will consider its response during a meeting on June 8. “We believe that we’re in compliance,” spokeswoman Tracie Cone said.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Jay Rivera said his department is already in the clear. Days after the Justice Department issued the letters, he said, Las Vegas Sheriff Joseph Lombardo made his case to Sessions during a meeting with other local leaders.

“As a result of that meeting, we were removed from that list,” Rivera said.

Cook County bars employees from “responding to ICE inquiries or communicating with ICE regarding individuals’ incarceration status or release dates while on duty.” That policy seems to tread as close as any on the list to section 1373, but spokesman Frank Shuftan said the county believes it’s in line with federal law.

Even Miami-Dade County – where Mayor Carlos Gimenez already responded to Trump’s order by rolling back a policy against detainer requests in February – is expected to send a letter proving its compliance.

Only one jurisdiction has apparently replied to DOJ’s inquiry so far.

On the day of his meeting with Sessions, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu sent a letter and an accompanying legal opinion explaining why he believes his city is in the clear. For one thing, he wrote, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials helped draft its policy, so “it is curious as to why last week New Orleans was one of nine locales targeted by the Department of Justice.”

Patrick Michels can be reached at pmichels@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @PatrickMichels.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for Reveal, covering immigration. His coverage focuses on immigration courts and legal access, privatization in immigration enforcement, and the government's care for unaccompanied children. He contributed to Reveal's award-winning project on indigenous land rights disputes created by oil pipelines. Previously, he was a staff writer at the Texas Observer, where his work included an investigation into corruption at the Department of Homeland Security and how the state's broken guardianship system allowed elder abuse to go unchecked. Michels was a Livingston Award finalist for his investigation into the deadly armored car industry. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where his work focused on government contractors grappling with trauma and injuries from their time in Iraq. Michels is based in Austin, Texas.