Anniston, Alabama, a city of about 22,000 residents, is in sync with the Trump administration’s views on immigration. Police Chief Shane Denham has no reservations about assisting federal agents by handing over undocumented immigrants who are in police custody.
But despite its Trump allegiance, the Anniston Police Department is on the losing side of the White House’s war on unauthorized immigration.
The city is one of dozens of jurisdictions across the country that have been frozen out of more than $250 million in federal grants slated to pay for local law enforcement basics—things like Tasers, crime-fighting task forces, and officer overtime. Attorney General Jeff Sessions paused the nationwide funding stream in response to an ongoing federal lawsuit filed by the city of Chicago. The case argues that it is illegal for the Justice Department to force local governments to adopt tough-on-immigration policies in order to receive federal money.
For Anniston, the freeze means $46,070 in federal funds is not available to buy new computers and radars for its police patrol cars. “Obviously, we are not a sanctuary city,” said Denham. “I am not quite sure why we would be affected.”
A Justice Department spokesperson said the freeze affects about one-fifth of the approximately $1.3 billion in federal grants that last fall began trickling down to police departments, sheriffs, and prosecutors’ offices across all 50 states. Those funds come from a popular program called the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants, or JAG.
The name honors Edward Byrne, a New York Police Department officer who was fatally shot in 1988 while guarding the home of a Guyanese immigrant—a witness in a drug case. Thirty years later, New York City filed a friend of the court brief siding with the city of Chicago in its funding fight against Sessions. New York City’s corporate counsel, Zachary W. Carter, said it was “ironic” for the Justice Department to “withhold funds from a grant named for a New York City police officer who heroically gave his life to protect an immigrant witness who was cooperating with law enforcement.”
Sessions tried to withhold JAG money only from “sanctuary cities” like Chicago, which was supposed to get $2.1 million, according to Justice Department records. When a federal judge ruled in September that the attorney general had exceeded his authority and issued a national injunction against depriving sanctuary cities of JAG money, Session filed an appeal and announced he was freezing the whole program.
An analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, found that more than $257 million in federal funds are now on hold because of Sessions’ fight with Chicago. “Nothing is stopping AG Sessions from providing these funds to law enforcement agencies,” said Betsy Pearl, the report’s author. “This is much needed money throughout the country.”
The JAG grants were first entangled in the sanctuary city debate during the waning months of the Obama administration in 2016. The Justice Department’s inspector general released a memo pointing out that a number of localities were withholding residents’ immigration information from federal officials. The Office of Justice Programs then announced that to qualify for JAG funds, jurisdictions would have to prove they were complying with federal law.*
Sessions embraced and enlarged the Obama-era requirement, adding two more conditions in July: Local officials must allow federal immigration agents access to local detention facilities, and they must give federal agents 48 hours’ notice when releasing undocumented immigrants from custody. The city of Philadelphia sued Sessions in August, arguing it was unlawful for the attorney general to tack on new “conditions” without congressional approval. A trial is set for April 30.
Former Justice Department officials described the Sessions freeze as unprecedented and a public safety threat.
“It’s not a GOP thing. It’s a neophyte in the White House thing,” said Regina B. Schofield, a former assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs under President George W. Bush. She added, “They are taxpayer dollars that you are being entrusted with. They are not yours. You can’t play politics.”
Laurie O. Robinson, who ran the Office of Justice Programs in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, described the Sessions freeze as a “tragedy.”
“So many jurisdictions right now are really starved for resources,” she said. “I really find it ironic that an administration that is continually touting its support for front-line law enforcement officers is now withholding the chief funding support that the Justice Department offers to law enforcement.”
*Correction, April 19, 2018: This story originally misidentified the Justice Department entity that warned cities against withholding cooperation from immigration authorities. It was the Office of Justice Programs, not the inspector general.