Feds threaten Burlington over immigration documents

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BURLINGTON — The Justice Department is asking Burlington for documents that it believes will show if the city has been cooperating with federal immigration law as part of an escalating, nationwide crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities.

The Department of Justice is threatening to subpoena records if Burlington doesn't turn over the documents, or fails to do so completely or quickly. The feds are asking for any documents that provide guidance to city police regarding how they are to interact with federal authorities.

The Justice Department has previously sent letters to 28 cities and states, including the state of Vermont and Burlington, warning that they may not be in compliance with a specific provision in federal immigration law. The law prohibits jurisdictions from passing laws that prevent officials from sharing information with federal authorities about the immigration status of residents.

Twenty-two states and cities were targeted in this latest request for information under the threat of a subpoena. The states of California, Illinois and Oregon, along with New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago were asked to turn over documents. The state of Vermont, which has been asked to explain its compliance with the federal immigration law, was not asked for documents Wednesday.

"I continue to urge all jurisdictions under review to reconsider policies that place the safety of their communities and their residents at risk," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a statement issued Wednesday morning.

Federal money for police is at stake should the Justice Department find that Burlington has failed to comply with the federal law. The Justice Department has said it may withhold grants to jurisdictions it determines aren't complying with the federal law. Burlington receives about $40,000 in justice assistance grants, according to Weinberger.

Burlington passed a Fair and Impartial Policing Policy last year that bars Burlington police from asking about a suspect's immigration status, but the policy was specifically written so as not to interfere with the federal immigration law in question, according to Mayor Miro Weinberger's letter to the DOJ.

Weinberger said Wednesday he was still digesting the information, but that his position has not changed.

"I expect that we'll respond the way we have consistently responded to these threats, which is to say that we are not going to be intimidated by the federal government into bad public safety policy," Weinberger said.

Burlington's policy is meant to make people more comfortable contacting police because they won't worry about being asked about their immigration status, Weinberger said. While Burlington is still looking through the letter and deciding on its next move, Weinberger said he fully expects the city will comply with the request.

"We don't think federal law compels Burlington police to become deputies of the federal administration as they attempt to implement what I think is very draconian immigration policy," Weinberger said.

The courts have stalled and in some cases halted the DOJ from retaliating against sanctuary cities. A federal judge issued an injunction in November that permanently blocks an executive order from President Donald Trump that orders officials to assess 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.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at a news conference in Washington, D.C., Wednesday that Sessions seemed to "disregard what the court system has already said uniformly from coast to coast."

All three members of Vermont's congressional delegation derided the DOJ for targeting Burlington and Vermont with letters asking for information last month. Burlington, and the other 22 cities and states asked for documents, have until Feb. 23 to respond to the DOJ.

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