By John Byrne
The Donald Trump administration's rules requiring cities to cooperate with immigration agents in order to get a public safety grant could lead to other strings on federal money tied to administration priorities, a city attorney argued Monday in the court fight between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Judge Harry Leinenweber heard arguments in the city's bid to block the new standards governing Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants from taking effect across the country. The Justice Department wants to require so-called sanctuary cities to give notice when immigrants in the country illegally are about to be released from custody and allow immigration agents access to local jails.
The Justice Department also wants local authorities to give 48 hours notice "where practicable" before releasing from custody people who federal immigration agents suspect of being in the country illegally. Emanuel has repeatedly said keeping people longer than 48 hours is unconstitutional.
Chicago has already applied for $1.5 million in Byrne grants for next year, and other local municipalities and Cook County have requested about $800,000 more as part of the same application. It's a miniscule piece of Chicago's roughly $9.8 billion municipal budget. Politically, the issue has taken on importance for the mayor, who wants to establish himself as a leader among big city mayors who are standing up to Trump policies.
Arguing for the city Monday, attorney Ron Safer said the Byrne grants were set up specifically by Congress to give local governments leeway to decide how best to allocate money to meet their law enforcement priorities. Sessions is attempting to "sweep away the goals of the (Byrne) JAG program," Safer said.
If Sessions is allowed to take this step, he could conceivably try to exercise much broader authority over what cities have to do to qualify for this or other grants, Safer said.
"This attorney general could say 'We believe building a wall is related to law enforcement, so unless you send four squads of Chicago police to help build the wall, you will get no JAG money,'" Safer said.
Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler countered there are already several strings attached to the Byrne grants, among them an Obama-administration requirement that cities don't use the money on military-style weapons. Standards are also in place for the types of police body armor that can be purchased with the funds, Readler said.
If Chicago doesn't like the rules, the city can simply opt not to apply for the money, Readler said.
Leinenweber said he would take the arguments under advisement, but gave no time line for when he would issue a ruling.
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