CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel sued the Justice Department on Monday over President Trump’s threat to cut off federal grants for so-called sanctuary cities like Chicago, calling it an attack against public safety and the city’s conscience.
Hours later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions struck back, describing street violence in Chicago as horrific and saying that “no amount of federal taxpayer dollars will help a city that refuses to help its own residents.”
The pointed exchange was an escalation in the struggle over federal funding and sanctuary cities, but also in a continuing back-and-forth between the White House and Chicago over the city’s endemic gun and gang violence.
“Chicago will not let our police officers become political pawns in a debate,” said Mr. Emanuel, a Democrat, whose city received $2.3 million in law enforcement grants last year from the program that is now at risk.
The city is asking a judge to toss out new Justice Department rules that would make Chicago ineligible to apply for such grants unless it agrees to give federal immigration authorities full access to its police stations and to provide 48 hours’ notice before releasing people wanted by immigration agents.
Chicago is by no means the first municipality to defy the Trump administration’s hard line against sanctuary cities. San Francisco and Santa Clara County, Calif., won an injunction in April against a broader federal effort to deny federal funds to local governments that limit their cooperation with immigration authorities. Seattle and Richmond, Calif., among others, have also sued.
But the litigation comes at a complicated time for Chicago, which has struggled with a persistently high murder rate, strained relations between residents and the police, and frequent jabs from Mr. Trump, who has threatened to “send in the Feds” if local officials cannot tamp down the bloodshed. The particular funding itself, too, is essential, Chicago officials say, because it is aimed at solving the city’s crime problem.
In his scathing rebuke, Mr. Sessions noted Chicago’s high murder rate and said the city’s leaders, to “a degree perhaps unsurpassed by any other jurisdiction,” have “chosen deliberately and intentionally to adopt a policy that obstructs this country’s lawful immigration system.” More than 400 people have been killed in Chicago this year.
“They have demonstrated an open hostility to enforcing laws designed to protect law enforcement — federal, state and local — and reduce crime, and instead have adopted an official policy of protecting criminal aliens who prey on their own residents,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement. “The city’s leaders cannot follow some laws and ignore others and reasonably expect this horrific situation to improve.”
The dispute over sanctuary cities, where the local authorities limit their cooperation with federal immigration officials, pits two visions of public safety against each other.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions have argued that sanctuary policies like Chicago’s endanger American citizens and police officers by allowing undocumented immigrants who commit crimes to stay in the country and evade justice.
“The mayor complains that the federal government’s focus on enforcing the law would require a ‘reordering of law enforcement practice in Chicago,’” Mr. Sessions said. “But that’s just what Chicago needs: a recommitment to the rule of law and to policies that roll back the culture of lawlessness that has beset the city.”
But Mr. Emanuel and Chicago police leaders argue the opposite. They say Chicago police officers make no inquiries about immigration status because doing so might fracture residents’ trust of the police and discourage those here illegally from reporting crimes or cooperating as witnesses, making the streets more dangerous.
Mr. Emanuel said the Trump administration was asking Chicago “to choose between our core values as a welcoming city and our fundamental principles of community policing.”
“It is a false choice, and a wrong choice,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Eddie Johnson, Chicago’s police superintendent, said the city “will not compromise the rights, safety or break the sacred trust of the people that live in and visit Chicago” in order to be eligible for federal funding.
The grants at stake in Chicago, which the city has used in the past for stun guns, SWAT team equipment and police vehicles, make up a tiny fraction of the city budget. But one supporter of the lawsuit, Gilbert Villegas, an alderman who is chairman of the City Council’s Latino Caucus, said there was “potential for that issue to creep into other grants” if it went unchallenged.
“I think it is a smart lawsuit,” said Mr. Villegas, whose ward was the site of a shooting this year involving an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent that raised tensions among residents. “I think it’s something that we as a city need to do.”
The lawsuit adds to an already complex relationship between Chicago and the Justice Department. Chicago officials are waiting to hear whether Mr. Sessions plans to enforce a department investigation of the Chicago police, completed in the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency, that found a pattern of discriminatory practices.
On Monday, city leaders said they hoped for a preliminary ruling on the lawsuit before Sept. 5, the deadline to apply for new funding from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program, which the lawsuit said provided “crucial support” for the police department.
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