Burlington mayor defends immigration policy against federal pressure

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BURLINGTON — The mayor is standing by a city policy that has come under fire from the federal government.

Last month the Department of Justice sent a letter to Mayor Miro Weinberger, Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson and 27 other jurisdictions in the country, alleging their laws may violate a federal law that ensures U.S. immigration authorities can get information about a suspect's immigration status upon request.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions railed against local policies that he said undermine the safety of residents.

"Jurisdictions that adopt so-called `sanctuary policies' also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law," Sessions said in a statement last month announcing the letters.

At stake is federal money for local and state police. The Justice Department has said it may withhold grants to jurisdictions it determines aren't complying with the federal law. The justice assistance grants total about $40,000 for Burlington, according to Weinberger, and nearly $500,000 for the state, according to the Justice Department.

Responding to the letter, Weinberger wrote back declaring the city is in compliance with federal law and calling the department's concerns "unwarranted and misplaced."

Weinberger wrote that the city's policies have a provision ensuring the federal law supersedes the local one, but he added that city police will not be compelled to enforce federal immigration laws.

"Local law enforcement officials will not be commandeered by federal authorities into becoming civil immigration officers," Weinberger wrote.

Burlington's letter was sent Friday to meet the Justice Department response deadline, but the state was given until the end of this workweek to respond, said Mark Bosma, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.

However, Sessions' warning may be an empty one.

A federal judge issued an injunction last month that permanently blocks an executive order from President Donald Trump that orders officials to examine jurisdictions that may run afoul of the federal immigration law and to halt federal funding to those that do.

The order is unconstitutional, according to District Judge William H. Orrick. The ruling, issued in the Northern District of California, says Trump's order violates the separation of powers doctrine and the Fifth and 10th amendments.

In his letter, Weinberger also invoked the 10th Amendment, which gives states powers that are not delegated to the federal government. Weinberger cited a recent court case between the city of Philadelphia and Sessions over the same immigration law, where a court forced Sessions to fork over the same federal grants.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., also quickly jumped to the defense of Vermont and Burlington last month, writing that Sessions' actions were unconstitutional.

"This decision makes clear that it is an affront to our government's fundamental separation of powers for the Trump administration to retaliate against states and localities that refuse to bow to its xenophobic, anti-immigrant agenda," Leahy said in a statement.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. also spoke out against the Justice Department letters, calling them a "blatant attempt by the attorney general to strong-arm state and local governments in this country to fall in line with the Trump administration's offensive anti-immigrant policies."

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