West Palm: We’ll comply with Justice Department immigration info demand

4:39 p.m Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018 Local
Mayor Jeri Muoio: West Palm’s ‘Welcoming City’ resolution complies with federal law. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Threatened with loss of law enforcement grants, West Palm Beach will provide whatever state public records law requires, to demonstrate compliance with federal immigration enforcement, the city said Wednesday.

West Palm and 22 other cities received letters from the Department of Justice this week, demanding emails and other communications to city law enforcers, “regarding whether and how these employees may, or may not, communicate with the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and/or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or their agents.”

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West Palm Beach in March passed a resolution declaring West Palm a “Welcoming City” whose employees will not help federal law enforcers round up immigrants for deportation unless specifically required to by state or federal law or courts. The effort was meant to allay concerns the city would actively assist in deportations, except as required, unlike some self-designated Sanctuary Cities that refuse to comply altogether.

“We are in receipt of the letter from the Department of Justice,” Kathleen Walter, West Palm director of communications, said Wednesday. “Our resolution complies with all federal laws. Documents will be provided as required by Florida public records laws.”

The Justice Department previously demanded that 38 jurisdictions prove they were not violating the federal law. According to a report on McClatchy.com, a senior Justice official said the 23 on the latest list either did not respond or did so inadequately.

The Jan. 24 letter to Mayor Jeri Muoio, from Director Jon Adler of DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, acknowledged that West Palm did respond to its November 2017 letter but said, “the department remains concerned that your jurisdiction’s laws, policies or practices may violate section 1373, or, at a minimum, that they may be interpreted or applied in a manner inconsistent with section 1373.” That federal law governs the requirements for receiving grants for a variety of local law enforcement needs.

If the city doesn’t respond to the current request for documents by Feb. 23, DOJ will subpoena them, the letter said. If still not satisfied with the result, the department could seek return of West Palm’s 2016 grants and deem the city ineligible for those grants for which it applied for the 2017 fiscal year, the letter said.

The city received at least $61,000 for 2016, which it used for a portable X-ray and 20 laser sights, and applied for another $60,000 for 2017.

“The Department fully anticipates your complete cooperation in this matter,” Adler wrote.

The grants referred to are Byrne Justice Assistance Grant awards, considered “the leading source of federal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions,” according to a DOJ website. “The JAG Program provides states, tribes, and local governments with critical funding necessary to support a range of program areas including law enforcement, prosecution, indigent defense, courts, crime prevention and education, corrections and community corrections, drug treatment and enforcement, planning, evaluation, technology improvement, and crime victim and witness initiatives and mental health programs and related law enforcement and corrections programs, including behavioral programs and crisis intervention teams.”

The DOJ letters, from a Trump Administration pressing to accelerate deportations, particularly of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, angered mayors across the country. Some, in Washington, D.C. to attend a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said they would boycott a scheduled White House meeting as a result of the Justice demands.

They have argued that to help in deportations would hurt police departments’ ability to build trusting relationships and fight crime within their communities.

“It is very sad that the White House plays politics that jeopardize the safety of West Palm Beach residents and visitors,” U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, said Thursday. “And it is especially ironic that Donald Trump is one of those visitors and whose visits to our area put an extra burden on our law enforcement.”

The resolution West Palm Beach’s city commission voted unanimously to adopt in March was not a city law but a policy statement, tailored to stay within the lines of federal law. It prohibits city employees from:

• Asking anyone for information about or otherwise helping investigate citizenship or immigration status.

• Disclosing information regarding someone’s citizenship or immigration status.

• Conditioning receipt of city benefits, opportunities or services on one’s citizenship or immigration status.

• Requiring federal identification documents issued by a person’s nation of origin, instead of just accepting a Florida drivers license or Florida ID card.

• And it requires that arrests and detentions be conducted in accordance with the city’s standard procedures.

“We were saying this is a welcoming city but also, understand we will obey all federal and state laws,” Muoio said Thursday.

“We want people to know that they can come to us if they need help, if they see a crime being committed they can report it and not feel like they’re going to have their immigration status checked,” she said. “We want them to know they can come to the city for services and if they need to call if the garbage isn’t picked up, they can do that and not have to worry about that.

“We want them to know they should be sending their kids to school and how important that is. I can’t even imagine how fearful a parent must be when they send their child off to school, to not know if they will be there when they come home.”