Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) reiterated Washington, D.C.’s status as a sanctuary city at a press conference Wednesday after President Donald Trump’s administration threatened to strip sanctuary cities of federal grant money the same day.
Sanctuary cities and states refuse to hand over individuals who entered the country illegally to deportation forces when they are arrested for unrelated charges.
Bowser’s statement is the latest from local government officials pushing back against the new administration’s conservative policies. As a federal and majority Democrat territory, the District’s lawmakers cannot spend local tax dollars in ways that conflict with the federal government’s spending rules.
Her announcement took place before House Republicans who have oversight over District affairs sent Bowser a letter Thursday warning her that the plan could violate federal law.
In the letter, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the subcommittee for District affairs, warned Bowser that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 prohibits government officials from using taxpayer funds to assist individuals without documentation from legally challenging deportation orders.
Trump’s executive order, issued Wednesday, mandates cutting off federal funds for cities that refuse to inform federal immigration officials about individuals without documentation in police custody.
The order, titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” states that local law enforcement officials who do not ask about citizenship status are will fully violating federal law. According to the American Immigrant Council, one in seven D.C. residents is an immigrant.
In response to the executive order, Bowser said Wednesday that maintaining D.C.’s status as a sanctuary city is especially important because of the fear she has observed among immigrant communities in the District in recent weeks.
Bowser said D.C.’s status becomes a matter of public safety in the event that immigrants without documentation are facing domestic abuse, illness or addiction issues, but are afraid to seek municipal resources out of fear of deportation.
“The values, laws, and policies of Washington, D.C., did not change on Election Day,” Bowser wrote in a press release. “We are a sanctuary city because we know that our neighborhoods are safer and stronger when no one is afraid to call on our government for help, and when our police can focus on protecting and serving.”
Bowser also faces opposition in Congress from Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Penn.), who introduced the Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Act on Jan. 3 to implement Trump’s plan to ban all federal funds from being used in sanctuary cities.
Barletta’s spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said the bill was important in establishing the federal government’s central role in enforcing border security.
“No mayor of any city or town in the United States can pick and choose which federal laws to obey,” Murtaugh said in an interview with The Hoya. “It is a federal responsibility to police the borders of the United States, and to openly defy federal immigration laws is irresponsible. And there should be repercussions.”
At the press conference, Bowser emphasized she is opposed to any federal policy that prohibits D.C.’s local government from providing services to its residents.
“Anything that would suggest that the government not work with an American city is worrisome,” Bowser said at the press conference. “Obviously, there are a lot of things that we do in cities in partnership with our government, and we would object, and we do object, to anything that the federal government wants to do to a local jurisdiction that would make it less safe.”
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees deportation programs across the country, has yet to implement any new policies regarding illegal immigration under the Trump administration.
ICE Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Rodriguez said ICE is not anticipating major policy changes. According to Rodriguez, the organization will continue their administration of the Priority Enforcement Program, which identifies potential immigrants without authorization among those who are under attest or sentenced to a crime, in addition to maintaining their support for local law enforcement.
“PEP is a balanced, common-sense approach that places the focus where it should be: on criminals and individuals who threaten the public safety,” Rodriguez said in an interview with The Hoya. “ICE is committed to working with its law enforcement partners nationwide to achieve that mission.”
D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham also reaffirmed that MPD is not anticipating any major policy changes and will continue acting under the directives of the Bowser administration.
“One of the messages that we wanted to send to folks was that in Washington, D.C., things are not going to change,” Newsham said in a press conference Jan. 20.
However, some immigration activists feel Bowser’s statements fail to fully protect immigrant communities in the District. Sapna Pandya, executive director of Many Languages One Voice, an immigration advocacy group, said she would like Bowser to commit to providing more tangible resources to area immigrant groups.
“I didn’t like that she didn’t add any stronger policy pieces. It was merely a statement that we’re a welcoming city, and we’re a diverse city, but that’s about it. My reaction, as well as the reaction of the people I work with, was that that’s just not enough,” Pandya said.
Pandya added that she hopes the local government will put aside funds for housing, healthcare, education and the implementation of labor laws.
Luis Gonzalez (COL ’19), a student without documentation, said he was pleased to see Bowser committing to the District’s status as a sanctuary city, because of the large immigrant population in the District.
“D.C. has a significant immigrant community and these people are part of the broader community and they should be protected,” Gonzalez said. “I really like that Mayor Bowser reaffirmed her commitment to a key constituency, a key part of the city. This makes me think that Mayor Bowser really knows where D.C. stands and what we value.”
On Thursday, Georgetown’s Senior Director of Communications Rachel Pugh confirmed the university is committed to supporting students without documentation following the hiring of an advisor for undocumented students on campus last year.
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