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NJ's Status as 'Welcoming' State Could Cost It $4 Million in Fed Funding

New Jersey joins multistate lawsuit fighting federal decision to make law enforcement funding contingent on immigration enforcement

Gurbir Grewal
Credit: NJTV News Online
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal

New Jersey is trying to get $4 million in federal aid for law enforcement, as well as bolster its new position as a "welcoming" state for undocumented immigrants, by joining a multistate legal case challenging the federal government's setting conditions for receiving money on immigration enforcement.

The announcement on Wednesday that New Jersey is among 16 states filing a brief in a suit the city of Chicago filed against the U.S. Justice Department over federal law enforcement funds is New Jersey's latest shot at the Trump administration and yet more proof that the new administration in Trenton is no longer an ally to the Republicans in power in Washington.

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the state's involvement and shared the amicus curiae brief that contends the Trump administration is interfering with the rights of states and municipalities to set their own rules for law enforcement by requiring recipients of federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants to assist in federal immigration enforcement matters.

"The Trump Administration is playing politics with public safety," Grewal said in a statement. "We firmly believe the funding restrictions that Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions seeks to impose on states and towns are illegal. But just as crucially, they're counterproductive. As a former county prosecutor, I've seen firsthand that you can fight crime while also treating our immigrant communities with dignity and respect."

Threatening to withhold funds

Last July, the Department of Justice announced that it was imposing new immigration-related conditions on recipients of Byrne JAG funding and threatened to withhold funds from jurisdictions that did not comply with these conditions. Three months ago, it sent letters to Newark, Middlesex County, and 27 other localities across the country, threatening to withhold money to them if they do not share information about the legal status of detained immigrants with federal justice officials.

The department allocated $174 million nationwide in the fiscal year that ended last September 30 through the Byrne JAG program for state and local law enforcement, courts, crime prevention and education, corrections, drug treatment and enforcement, planning, technology, crime victims, and mental and behavioral health programs related to law enforcement. New Jersey was to have gotten $4 million and 41 municipalities were to share in another $1.8 million. None of that money has been distributed yet and is reportedly frozen pending the outcome of several legal cases.

In this particular case, a U.S. District Court Judge ruled in favor of Chicago, deciding that Sessions overstepped his authority and could not impose special conditions on the city to receive JAG money and that the city would suffer "irreparable harm" by agreeing to assist with federal immigration authority actions. Other federal judges have issued similar rulings in cases involving Philadelphia, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.

In the Chicago case, the judge issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against the DOJ's enforcement of two of the immigration-related conditions. Sessions appealed and the matter is pending.

Unwavering efforts

Sessions has been unwavering in his efforts to get localities to help federal authorities in efforts to deport the undocumented. Withholding the federal funds is an effort to carry out an executive order President Donald Trump signed soon after taking office that forbids so-called sanctuary jurisdictions from receiving most federal grants.

Specifically, the DOJ is trying to require states and localities to provide the Department of Homeland Security with advance notice of an immigrant's scheduled release date from a correctional facility, grant federal agents access to correctional facilities to question immigrants, and report on and certify state and local compliance with a federal information-sharing law regarding detainees' legal status.

In their brief, Grewal and the other attorneys general argue that these new federal conditions violate the constitutional principle of separation of powers by attempting to dictate state and local law enforcement policies. They contend the DOJ does not have the authority to impose such conditions and that federal law allows states and localities to limit their voluntary involvement with the enforcement of federal immigration policy.

"The United States Attorney General now claims authority to withhold Byrne-JAG funding from States and localities that have made law-enforcement policy judgments that federal law permits, but with which he disagrees," the attorneys general brief states. "Specifically, he contends that he may deny grants to States and localities that limit their voluntary involvement with enforcing federal immigration policy because those jurisdictions have concluded that fostering a relationship of trust between their law enforcement officials and their immigrant communities will promote public safety. The Byrne JAG statute does not authorize the U.S. Attorney General's position, which is also contrary to the federalism principles that Congress enshrined in the Byrne-JAG program."

Byrne JAG is a federal grant program that provides funding to law enforcement agencies according to a mandatory statutory formula. Congress designed it to give states and localities a reliable source of law-enforcement funding and the flexibility to decide how to use the funds. New Jersey and the other participating amicus states have received law-enforcement grants under the Byrne program, and prior grants, since 1968.

According to Grewal's office, New Jersey has used Byrne JAG money for such public-safety efforts as multiagency task forces targeting illegal gang activity, firearms traffic and narcotics dealing, training for prosecutors, criminal justice information-sharing initiatives, and body-worn cameras for law enforcement. In the 2016 fiscal year, the state got about $4.27 million, most of it to local law enforcement entities.

The other states that signed onto the amicus brief, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

Attorneys general are not the only ones getting involved in the case. Four of New Jersey's Democratic congressional representatives are among 55 who filed their own amicus brief with the court last month. U.S. Senator Bob Menendez and Reps. Frank Pallone of the 6th District, Bill Pascrell of the 9th, and Albio Sires of the 8th signed onto the brief that seeks to force the DOJ to release the money to states and localities. "Congress established this grant program to provide states and localities with funding to determine what programs and approaches to law enforcement and public safety will work best in different communities around the country," the lawmakers wrote. "The grant conditions at issue in this case undermine Congress's carefully considered plan in establishing this grant program, as well as fundamental constitutional principles that give Congress, not the executive branch, the power to make laws establishing conditions on the receipt of federal financial assistance."

There is likely more support for those municipalities that seek to buck federal immigration enforcement. Last year, shortly after Trump's executive order regarding sanctuary cities, Democratic lawmakers introduced bills to have New Jersey create a new grant program to give municipalities and counties a dollar-for-dollar match of any aid denied by the federal government due to the locality's "sanctuary" or "welcoming" status.

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