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NJ Joins Suit Demanding Trump DOJ Distribute Millions in Policing Funds

Six states refuse to be strong-armed into enforcing Trump immigration laws in order to receive federal funding for police initiatives

Police Camden

In another effort to “resist” actions by the Trump administration, New Jersey is joining with five other states to try to force the federal government to release funds that have been withheld due to their position on immigration. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Justice has refused to distribute millions of dollars in policing aid because these states will not enforce the department’s stricter immigration laws.

The latest in a host of legal actions state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal has taken against Trump administration policies, the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York differs from the others because it seeks to prevent direct harm to the state — the loss of more than $4 million in funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant for law enforcement.

Grewal announced that the state joined with New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington in suing the DOJ over making the distribution of money contingent on several immigration enforcement conditions. It is asking the court to rule the imposition of those conditions illegal and to prevent the administration from using them in determining awards.

Gurbir Grewal
Credit: NJTV News Online
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal

“Under Attorney General Sessions, the Department of Justice has tried to force a false choice on state and local governments: either you adopt the same harsh, anti-immigrant policies as the federal government, or you don’t get federal grant funding for critical anti-violence programs,” Grewal said in a statement in which he called the funds a “critical source” of money for public safety and law enforcement. “We reject that false choice. We will not allow the federal government to weaponize federal grant funding in an effort to advance the President’s agenda.”

No federal funding for sanctuaries

Sessions imposed the conditions last year in an effort to get localities to help federal efforts to deport the undocumented. It is part of his attempt 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.

Although he supported the idea of designating New Jersey a sanctuary state during his campaign, Gov. Phil Murphy has not gone that far. But he has taken numerous steps in support of undocumented immigrants, including the creation of a state office to help New Jersey’s “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and have been unable to get a green card or become citizens.

New Jersey’s Congressional representatives have written to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeking the release of the money, and New Jersey previously filed a friend of the court brief in a case involving Chicago. But only a direct suit against the DOJ is likely to get the federal funds. Every court in the country that has heard similar cases has ruled that the DOJ cannot force states and cities to follow its immigration enforcement rules as a condition of receiving the funds, but those rulings only apply to the states and cities involved in those cases, said Lee Moore, a Grewal spokesman.

Funding contingent on three conditions

ICE arrest

The DOJ announced last July that in order to receive Byrne JAG funds, localities would have to meet three conditions: allow federal agents to question immigrants in state and local correctional facilities; give agents advance notice of an immigrant’s scheduled release date; and share with agents information related to the citizenship or status — legal or undocumented — of immigrants.

A former federal and county prosecutor, Grewal said that civil immigration enforcement is the sole responsibility of the federal government and attempts to force states to assist with it are unconstitutional.

“In New Jersey, we recognize that law enforcement works best when it develops and maintains strong ties to our local communities, including our immigrant communities,” Grewal said. “The Justice Department apparently disagrees, and it’s willing to put lives in danger by playing politics with much-needed federal grant funds.”

The five-count lawsuit contends that the federal statute authorizing the Byrne JAG program does not give Sessions the right “to impose conditions that require states or local governments to assist in immigration enforcement,” or to “deny funds to states or local governments for their failure to comply with these conditions.” It also charges that requiring states and cities to certify and report on compliance with the DOJ’s rules violates the constitutional principle of separation of powers.

The 50-year old Byrne JAG program gives funds to states and localities according to a statutory formula. Congress designed the grants to provide a reliable source of law enforcement funds, while also giving states and cities the flexibility to decide how to use the funds. New Jersey has used its grants for public-safety efforts like multi-agency task forces targeting illegal gang activity, firearms trafficking, and narcotics dealing; for training prosecutors; for criminal justice information-sharing initiatives; and for body-worn cameras for law enforcement. In the 2016 fiscal year, New Jersey received almost $4.3 million in funds through the program and passed most of that — about $3.3 million — to local law enforcement agencies.

Federal officials notified New Jersey that the state is eligible for a grant of more than $4 million for the 2017 fiscal year. The state has earmarked the funds in its recently enacted budget to combat issues related to gangs, organized crime, drugs, gun trafficking, and monitoring sex offenders, as well as to train law enforcement at all levels. New Jersey’s deadline to accept its award is August 10, 2018.

Last year, after announcing the immigration-related conditions, the DOJ sent letters to 31 localities across the country, including Newark and Middlesex County in New Jersey, threatening to withhold money if they do not share information about the legal status of detained immigrants with federal justice officials. New Jersey communities stand to lose $1.8 million unless they comply with the DOJ’s rules or a judge orders the department to release the funds.

In a statement, Newark Police Director Anthony Ambrose said the city has been getting the federal funds for years and they are “a necessity to make our communities safe.” Still, while the city stands to lose about $328,000 from the program, it has no plans to comply with the DOJ’s rules.

"We will continue to work with ICE when serious violent crimes are committed,” Ambrose said. “However, the men and woman of the police division will not pursue illegal immigrants as a priority.”

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