The continued support of millions of federal dollars that bolster Spokane’s budget could come down to defining the legally vague phrase “sanctuary city.”
City leaders said Wednesday a 2014 law that outlawed police from inquiring about immigration status should not put Spokane in jeopardy of losing federal funding as a “sanctuary city,” following an executive order from President Donald Trump on Wednesday. The City of Spokane received $36.2 million in federal funding in 2015, the most recent full year for which figures are available.
“I’m not unnerved by following our police policy for the last 10 years,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart. Prior to passage of the 2014 ordinance, Spokane Police had not been asking about immigration status as a department policy for a decade. “All our police chiefs have been clear. I think the city of Spokane would rather have our police out working on property crime, than asking somebody what their immigration status is.”
In a statement, Mayor David Condon’s office said it expected federal funding levels will continue following the executive order. The $36.2 million in 2015 represented about 8 percent of the city’s total spending that year.
“Spokane is not a sanctuary city, although it has always been a city that works to ensure that all of our citizens feel safe, welcomed and valued,” the statement, from Condon’s spokesman Brian Coddington, read.
Trump’s executive order calling for a stop of federal grant money for cities “that fail to comply with applicable Federal law” on immigration drew full-throated condemnations from the mayors of Seattle, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco, where policies are in place to impede the actions of some federal immigration enforcement agencies. By contrast, the Spokane policy focuses on initial contact with local police, and should not be considered a “sanctuary city” policy, City Councilman Breean Beggs, an attorney, said.
“We’re not a sanctuary city, in my opinion, because we don’t obstruct the federal government,” Beggs said.
City Councilman Mike Fagan, who opposed the policing ordinance when it was passed, said he continued to believe the policy could be seen as granting sanctuary status to the city, in a break from the mayor and other council members.
“I opposed it, because what we were doing in codifying that policy was providing some semblance of sanctuary to people who are in this country illegally,” Fagan said.
Trump’s executive order, signed Wednesday in conjunction with a pledge to construct a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, is silent on the definition of a sanctuary city. It leaves in place a legal uncertainty that has dogged debate about local immigration policies, even as the president vowed on the campaign trail to cut funding to local governments that could be seen to flout federal law.
The order charges retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, secretary of Homeland Security, with defining a sanctuary city. Kelly was recently sworn into the post after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, including affirmative votes by Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats.
In a confirmation hearing held Jan. 10 on Capitol Hill, Kelly indicated he disagreed with cities that chose not to enforce federal immigration laws, though he said he could undertand “their perspective.”
“Well, I think as a public servant, if I’m confirmed, I don’t have the authority to pick and choose what laws need to be followed,” Kelly said. “I think it’s, in some ways, dangerous to think you can pick and choose laws.”
Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statement opposing Trump’s immigration actions Wednesday.
“Any attempt to compromise the ability of our law enforcement agencies to focus on their job of keeping our communities safe will be resisted,” the governor said.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement he was “deeply troubled” by the sanctuary city order and that his office would be “investigating closely to protect the constitutional and human rights of the people of our state.”
When the City Council passed the ordinance in 2014, the majority argued it strengthened public safety by allowing immigrants who are in Spokane illegally to report crimes without fear of arrest and deportation. The law prohibited officers from inquiring “into the immigration status of any person, or engage in activities designed to ascertain the immigration status of any person,” codifying a policy that Spokane police had been in place for a decade.
Fiery testimony from opponents of the law led Stuckart to emphatically gavel to a close a City Council meeting in January 2015 discussing a potential ballot measure to repeal the policy.
Though the city policy guides the actions of Spokane police officers, Spokane County is in charge of the jail where city inmates are house. The jail which takes requests from the Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain those suspected of being in the country illegally. Steve Kinn, a civil attorney for Spokane County, said the county has a formal agreement with the Border Patrol to house inmates being transferred to the coast for arraignment appearances, but nothing formal with ICE, who will not indemnify the county for any legal costs incurred due to the detention.
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice and an advocate for the policing ordinance, said the Trump administration would have many other cities to target for not working with immigration agencies before zeroing in on Spokane.
“On the spectrum of how cooperative – or actively cooperative – communities are in immigration matters, Spokane’s not a big resister,” Eichstaedt said.
Seattle passed a law forbidding its police officers from inquiring about immigration status in 2003, a full decade before Spokane took up the issue. But the King County Council took the additional step in 2014 of passing an ordinance stating they would only cooperate with immigration officials “for individuals that are accompanied by a criminal warrant issued by a U.S. District Court judge or magistrate.” That measure could trigger a withdrawal of federal funds under Trump’s executive order.
The federal funds that the Trump administration could potentially withhold for violating the executive order could come from any source “except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes” by the Homeland Security director and U.S. Attorney General. Trump has pegged Alabaman Sen. Jeff Sessions for the attorney general post, but he has not been confirmed.
Stuckart said he hoped a review of Spokane’s policy would be objective and not driven by politics. He accused political opponents of attempting to cast Spokane as a “sanctuary city” three years ago.
“I hope they’ll be reviewing the criteria, instead of just looking at the fake news websites,” Stuckart said. “We’ve always said we passed a non-biased policing ordinance.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.