West Palm sues U.S. to affirm pro-immigrant ‘Welcoming City’ stance

12:28 p.m Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 Local
West Palm Beach mayor Jeri Muoio holds press conference at Clematis St. and Quadrille Blvd. Monday, January 29, 2018 to discuss new yellow and black railway safety signage being added to Brightline railway crossings throughout the city. The new signage reads "See Tracks? THINK TRAIN." Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post

Threatened with loss of police grants, West Palm Beach countered Tuesday by suing the Department of Justice, asking a U.S. court to declare the city’s 2017 Welcoming City resolution compliant with federal law and put an end to the threats, which are aimed to win local help in deportations.

“Prior to filing this lawsuit, the City tried to work with DOJ in good faith to clearly explain and prove to them that there should be no reason for DOJ to continue to question the City’s compliance with federal law,” City Spokeswoman Kathleen Walter said in a release late Tuesday. “DOJ, however, has refused to release the City from a list of cities that it is targeting as potential violators of federal law, even though the DOJ has provided no explanation as to why it thinks the City might not be complying with federal law.”

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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.

But in late January, West Palm and 22 other cities received letters from the Department of Justice, 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.” West Palm responded that it would comply with all information requests, in the same way it supplies public records in accordance with Florida law.

But in light of the pressure from the Justice Department, the lawsuit requests a quick finding from a federal court “to help resolve this issue with the DOJ in a timely manner,” Walter said.

“The Welcoming City resolution seeks to foster trust between the immigrant population and City officials and employees and to encourage people of all backgrounds to take full advantage of the City’s resources and opportunities. The resolution clearly requires that all employees and police officers follow the law and does not in any way prohibit or restrict West Palm Beach employees and police officers from sharing information with any federal agency when it is required by federal law, state law, or local ordinance.”

The city has received over $400,000 in Byrne JAG awards over the past five years, the grants now threatened with elimination and retraction by the Justice Department. “These funds have become a staple in the City’s budget and are today an important source of funding for the police department,” the lawsuit asserted.

The city also has received $3.9 million in COPS grants since 2003, grants that help with hiring police for community enforcement. These grants follow the same rules and could also be in jeopardy, the lawsuit said.

Subjecting the grants to deportation mandates “marks a radical departure from the Department of Justice’s past grant-making practices” and violates the U.S. Constitution because it “would flout the limits of Congress’ Spending Clause powers,” the suit asserts.