DOJ threatens to pull funding for police over immigration policy violations

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice notified the state of Vermont and the city of Burlington that law enforcement agencies could lose federal funding over immigration policies.

Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General, sent letters to 29 jurisdictions across the country Wednesday.

The Trump administration says it will crack down on so-called "sanctuary" policies — practices some municipalities and states have adopted that limit local enforcement of federal civil immigration laws.

The DOJ contends that state and Burlington immigration policies are in violation of the terms for federal law enforcement grants.

In a letter to Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson, the DOJ raised issues with a fair and impartial policing policy.

Three aspects of the Burlington Police Department fair and impartial policing policy were identified in the letter to Mayor Miro Weinberger: a restriction on sending notification of release of individuals to the federal government, a section limiting inquiries about immigration status, and a limitation of involvement of federal immigration officials in research.

"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.

Mayor Miro Weinberger said the city has reviewed the city's policies and believes they are in compliance.

"Regardless of who populates the administration in Washington, the Federal government has no authority to deputize Burlington police officers to enforce Federal civil immigration laws," Weinberger wrote in a statement. He said the letter the letter was "concerning but unsurprising."

The state and Burlington has until Dec. 8 to respond.

Gov. Phil Scott insisted that Vermont is in compliance with federal laws, and asserted the U.S. attorney general "had not done his homework" before including the state on a list of so-called sanctuary sites threatened with the loss of federal funds.

"We believe we're on safe ground," Scott said.

In a joint statement, Anderson and Vermont State Police Colonel Matthew Birmingham note that the DOJ's action threatens an annual grant of $467,000 used to fund the Vermont Drug Task Force, which routinely conducts investigations of drug traffickers in Vermont, including heroin traffickers. "The loss of these funds would have a significant and detrimental effect on the State of Vermont's ability to investigate drug trafficking offenses. In addition to funding a local officer on the Task Force, these funds are used for day-to-day operational expenses of the state-wide Drug Task Force. Without a fully functioning Task Force, Vermont's ability to effectively investigate, arrest and prosecute heroin and other drug traffickers will be significantly hampered and will pose an unacceptable risk to the safety of Vermont."

Sen. Patrick Leahy's office said in the last fiscal year, Vermont received $507,892 in funding and Burlington received $39,945. Both jurisdictions are poised to receive more money under the program for fiscal 2017, but the DOJ has held up the grants so far, according to the senator.

Leahy said the DOJ immigration crackdown is "shameful."

"I strongly believe that police chiefs and local leaders should decide what state and local policies are necessary and best to keep their communities safe — not an attorney general who is attempting to extort immigration reform by cutting off vital public safety dollars to local communities and their residents," Leahy said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders called the letters "nothing more than another attack by the Trump administration on our communities -- a way to try to divide us up rather than go forward with comprehensive immigration reform.

"Cities, towns, and states should be able to police their communities as they see fit. It is outrageous for Attorney General Sessions and the Department to threaten to withhold funds based on political threats.

"We cannot and do not want to live in a society where people are afraid to call the police to get the help they need because they are worried about the consequences for their own lives. They should know that the police are there to protect them, no matter their immigration status."

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch called the action "a slap in the face."

"It is 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," Welch said. "The courts should block this heavy-handed and punitive decision."

Additional material was incorporated in this story.

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