DOJ Challenges Watsonville’s Sanctuary Ordinance

City officials claim sanctuary warning letters are unconstitutional

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Mayor Oscar Rios said he was not surprised when Watsonville City Council received a letter from the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Nov. 15 warning sanctuary cities to comply with federal law or face losing funding. Watsonville is one of 29 jurisdictions nationwide the DOJ believes may be out of compliance with laws mandating local cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Despite Santa Cruz being a sanctuary city it is not included in this list.

Cities who received the DOJ letter are required to prove their laws are in compliance with federal immigration laws by Dec. 8.

“The letter is another intimidation telling us that we cannot stand up for the immigrants. It was a threat. […] Either you behave or you run the risk of losing federal funds,” Rios said.

Illustration by Anna McGrew

The cities of San Francisco, Berkeley and Fremont and the counties of Contra Costa, Monterey, Santa Clara and Sonoma were among other recipients of the warning letter. Santa Cruz County has not commented, stating it would be best to turn to Watsonville city government for a statement.

Cities, counties and states that bar police from asking about someone’s immigration status or prohibit officers from allowing federal immigration agents into their jails may be in violation of Title 8, U.S. Code 1373 (Section 1373), said Alan Hanson, U.S. acting assistant attorney general in the letter.

Hanson also requests recipients disclose whether they would comply with Section 1373 should they otherwise lose funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program.

If found not in compliance, Watsonville — along with other cities and counties that received the letter — may lose millions of dollars in funding from JAG that would have been used to provide support for local police departments.

In the letter, the DOJ cited policies in each city the department considered to be noncompliant with federal law. Watsonville’s letter targeted a city ordinance concerning the city’s procedures toward federal immigration law that declared Watsonville a sanctuary for all residents, citing three sections of the city’s ordinance that may violate Section 1373.

Watsonville has responded to the letter stating there are no violations.

“We believe we are in compliance

with the statute that is referenced in the U.S. DOJ letter,” said Matt Huffaker, Watsonville assistant city manager. “Although we have designated ourselves as a sanctuary city and we will not proactively participate in efforts made by the federal government in terms of federal immigration enforcement actions, that does not go so far as to inhibit federal activities.”

Last week at Watsonville City Council’s closed session meeting, the council instructed the city attorney to move forward with signing an amicus brief that would supply the federal court with relevant additional information and arguments when considering the constitutionality of threatening federal funding. By signing the brief, Watsonville joins other sanctuary cities in California in litigation against the Trump administration.

“We are supporting those lawsuits against the government for what they’re trying to do to all of [the] sanctuary cities,” Mayor Oscar Rios said.

The city of Watsonville filed the amicus brief in support of challenging President Donald Trump’s recent efforts targeting sanctuary cities, claiming Trump’s threat to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities is unconstitutional.

“The new federal funding requirements in [Title] 8, U.S. Code 1373 exceed congressional authority conferred on the president and exceed Congress’ spending powers under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution,” stated the city of Watsonville in a press release.

Federal judges have concluded in the past that requiring local police to comply could go against the 10th Amendment — which prohibits the federal government from requiring local governments to govern according to Congress’ instructions.

Longstanding Supreme Court precedents also mandate the federal government cannot impose new conditions on federal grants to states and localities unless clearly stated in the original text of the law.

“Watsonville is a community of great diversity. We celebrate that diversity. We have no plans changing the city’s position in regards to its sanctuary city status,” Matt Huffaker said. “Even if that would result in the possible loss of the JAG funds, we think that would be a small price to pay to maintain our sanctuary city status.”