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Seattle, King County Continue Standoff With Trump Administration Over Immigration Enforcement

Will James
King County Council Chairman Joe McDermott speaks at a news conference at El Centro De La Raza on Dec. 8, 2017

Seattle and King County officials fired back at the Trump administration Friday, saying they won't drop local law enforcement policies designed to protect undocumented immigrants despite pressure from the U.S. Justice Department.

“I feel confident, not only in our legal position as the city attorney mentioned, but that we have the moral high ground in this," Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said at a news conference.

She spoke at El Centro de la Raza, a Seattle nonprofit that provides resources to immigrants, as children in a childcare program could be heard playing outside.

"We will stand on that high ground and we will protect the voices of those children that we heard just moments ago so that it remains laughter and does not turn to tears," said Durkan, a former U.S. attorney.

She and other leaders were responding to a November warning from the Justice Department aimed at pressuring so-called "sanctuary cities" into increasing their cooperation with immigration agents. 

Justice Department officials warned 29 cities and counties across the country that their practice of limiting cooperation with immigration officials violates a federal "information sharing" statute and they risk losing federal funding for policing programs.

"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 the rule of law," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a news release.

Local leaders say their policies increase public safety by encouraging undocumented immigrants to report crimes and aid police.

Seattle police officers and King County sheriff's deputies, as a matter of policy, do not ask about a resident's immigration status in most circumstances. 

In letters sent to the Justice Department on Friday, city and county leaders said their policies comply with federal law and they remain legally eligible for federal public-safety grants. 

"We are a welcoming city and we are a safe city," Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said at the news conference. "And as your elected city attorney, I will continue to stand up to President Trump's bullying tactics." 

Justice Department officials warned that failure to comply could result in the loss of local funding through the federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant

Seattle was awarded more than $673,000 though the program in October for a community policing program, equipment and overtime costs. 

Over the past year, the Trump administration has ramped up pressure on local jurisdictions with policies designed to protect undocumented immigrants.

In March, the Trump administration put King County and 10 other Washington counties on a list of jurisdictions it considered "non-cooperative" on immigration enforcement. Local officials called it an attempt at shaming. 

The administration's efforts have also included a nationwide October operation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement billed as a crackdown on undocumented people living in "sanctuary cities." The operation resulted in 26 arrests in Washington. 

Seattle and King County have responded with defiance. In April, they jointly placed $1.5 million in a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants facing deportation.

Seattle sued the Trump administration in March over the federal government's threats to pull funding from "sanctuary" jurisdictions. That case is pending in federal court. 

On Friday, Durkan announced the recipients of $150,000 intended to help young immigrants who now face possible deportation due to a change in federal policy.

The money is going to a handful of organizations that provide legal and educational help to so-called “Dreamers," including El Centro de la Raza, the Korean Community Service Center, and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

Seattle officials set aside the money in September, after the Trump administration announced plans to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The Obama-era policy allows some young undocumented people to remain in the United States legally, including about 17,000 in Washington.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.