Justice Dept. Can’t Tie Police Funding to Help on Immigration, Judge Rules

A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that the Justice Department cannot require that local police departments help immigration agents in order to receive federal funding.

LOS ANGELES — The Justice Department cannot require that local police departments help immigration agents in order to receive federal funding, a federal judge has ruled. The ruling is a significant victory for local governments that have opposed the Trump administration’s stance on immigration and vowed to stay out of enforcement efforts.

United States District Judge Manuel Real in Los Angeles issued a permanent, national injunction against the federal funding rules, giving the city an important win in a long-running legal battle with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the White House.

The ruling is “a complete victory,” Mike Feuer, the Los Angeles city attorney, said Thursday. “This is yet another dagger in the heart of the administration’s efforts to use federal funds as a weapon to make local jurisdictions complicit in its civil immigration enforcement policies.”

A Justice Department spokesman, Devin M. O’Malley, suggested an appeal was likely.

The federal government is legally entitled to give priority in its grant funding to local governments “that prioritize the safety of their communities and their law enforcement officers when they promise to cooperate with federal immigration authorities seeking information about illegal aliens who have committed crimes,” he said in a statement.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “the court not only rejected this common-sense conclusion, but it chose to issue a permanent nationwide injunction that is overbroad and inconsistent with the rule of law. We look forward to continuing the strong defense of our position.”

The ruling handed down Wednesday came in one of several lawsuits that state and city officials in California have filed against the federal government arguing that it has overreached in trying to force local officers to help with immigration enforcement.

“The Trump administration cannot manipulate federal grant fund requirements to pressure states, counties or municipalities to enforce federal immigration laws,” Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, said last year when the state filed a lawsuit against the administration for denying funding to so-called sanctuary cities.

Last month, a federal district judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction against the federal government in that case, saying that the courts in other parts of the country had reached different conclusions and that “issues in this case will benefit from further development.”

After that ruling, the Trump administration filed its own lawsuit against California over its own “sanctuary state” law, which prevents the police in many cases from holding people at the request of federal immigration agents, and limits the sharing of information about the release of some county jail inmates who are in the country illegally. In its suit, the federal government argues that the law makes it impossible for immigration officers to do their jobs. A hearing in the case is scheduled for late June.

Los Angeles has for years received millions of dollars under the federal Community Oriented Policing Services program, which is meant to promote community policing. The city police department has used the money for its Community Safety Partnership, which allows police officers to spend intensive time in neighborhoods, leading mentoring programs or coaching sports teams. The police say the program in the neighborhood of Watts has helped bring about a 50 percent reduction in violent crime and arrests.

In 2016, the city used the roughly $3 million it received to hire about 25 officers. City officials asked for the same amount of money in 2017, hoping to use it to hire more officers in a South Los Angeles neighborhood where violence had spiked.

But police departments around the country seeking a share of the $98 million pool of grant money last year were asked to demonstrate that they have a policy of alerting immigration agents before releasing inmates and giving immigration agents access to jails in order to conduct inmate interviews and review files. Departments were also asked to give federal authorities 48-hours notice before the release of any immigrants.

The Los Angeles Police Deparment did not do so, and was awarded no money. The Justice Department said the vast majority of those departments that received grants had signaled a “willingness to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.”

The city’s lawsuit argued that local governments had “an untenable choice: Commit to participating in federal civil immigration investigation and enforcement efforts, or sacrifice funds for public safety and community policing.”

In the ruling, Judge Real said that the funding rules violated the notion of separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution and improperly tried to force local police officers to take on immigration enforcement, which legally is the responsibility of the federal government. The department’s action “upset the constitutional balance between state and federal power by requiring state and local law enforcement to partner with federal authorities,” he wrote. He added that Congress, not the executive branch, has the authority to control government spending.

Several other cities, including Philadelphia and Chicago, have also filed lawsuits against the administration’s attempt to tie federal funding to immigration enforcement, arguing that the government is overstepping its authority by creating new rules on grants without approval from Congress.

Local officials have also argued that forcing local police officers to cooperate on immigration enforcement could impair their ability to win cooperation from immigrants, who may fear being at risk of deportation by speaking to local law enforcement officers. Placing immigration enforcement requirements on grants meant to improve community policing, Mr. Feuer said, is “ironic — and at worst, very dangerous.”

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