LAWRENCE -- Last week's vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to cut off federal aid to communities that declare themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants – which includes Lawrence – is “plainly unconstitutional,” said a lawyer representing the city in a suit challenging an earlier effort by President Trump to do the same.
The House passed the bill in an attempt to circumvent a ruling by a federal District Court in San Francisco, California, that temporarily blocked Trump from carrying out his executive order cutting off federal funding to towns and cities that direct their police not to cooperate with immigration agents seeking undocumented immigrants. District Court Judge William Orrick issued the injunction in April, saying the president has no authority to attach new conditions to federal aid to states and municipalities.
The House responded by passing a bill Thursday that would give Trump the authority Orrick said he lacked.
The House voted 228-195 for the bill, called the “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act,” largely along party lines. It now goes to the Senate, which already has blocked similar legislation. Only certain Department of Justice and Homeland Security grants to localities, including some related to combating gangs, preventing drug crimes and stopping terrorism, would be affected by the House bill, which could help to circumvent another finding by Judge Orrick that Trump's initial executive order targeted federal aid too broadly.
“It is on its face plainly unconstitutional,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice in Boston, which is representing Lawrence and the city of Chelsea in a suit they filed in February seeking to block Trump's effort to cut off aid to sanctuary jurisdictions. The two cities filed their suit before Judge Orrick issued his temporary injunction against Trump in the San Francisco suit, and have since agreed to delay their suit while the San Francisco case goes forward.
In the meantime, the House bill passed Thursday opened a second federal front against Lawrence, Chelsea and more than 300 other municipalities nationwide that have said they will limit cooperation when agents from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency arrive in pursuit of undocumented immigrants.
Espinoza-Madrigal said that if the bill is passed by the Senate and signed by Trump, it also will become tangled up in the federal courts.
“It violates the principals of federalism and the 10th Amendment rights under the Constitution, which provide for local jurisdictions – cities and towns like Lawrence – to come up with their own policies and practices,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “So this law would be very vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. We stand ready to protect and defend the families and children living in immigrant-friendly communities.”
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, voted against the bill, as well as a second bill that would stiffen penalties for undocumented immigrants who cross into the United States repeatedly after their initial deportations. The second bill passed 257-167.
In a statement emailed by an aide, Tsongas said, “I voted against yesterday’s bills because they further a discriminatory anti-immigrant agenda and rhetoric, could harm asylum seekers and dissuade legal immigration, interfere with the ability of local police to do their job and are counterproductive to achieving cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement entities and the communities they serve and protect.”
The Trump administration says sanctuary towns and cities are releasing criminals who should be deported, rather than turning them over to ICE agents. San Francisco, Lawrence and other sanctuary communities say turning local police into immigration officers erodes the trust needed to get immigrants to cooperate with police and report crime.
Mayor Daniel Rivera initially opposed the proposal to limit the city's cooperation with ICE agents when it was passed by the City Council in a 7-2 vote in August 2015. Rivera did not veto the measure and Police Chief James Fitzpatrick promised to implement it, although he said recently that he has turned over a handful of undocumented immigrants to ICE agents because they had criminal warrants for their arrests. Rivera's evolution on the issue was completed in February, when he joined Chelsea in the suit against Trump's executive order cutting off aid to sanctuary cities.
On Friday, Rivera said he will “withhold judgment” on the House bill until it's passed by the Senate and is sent to Trump for his signature.
He added, “Until then, we will stay focused on making Lawrence a better place to live and work for everyone who lives here.”
The White House did not return a phone call seeking response.