Department of Justice threatens to subpoena Berkeley over sanctuary status

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The Department of Justice, or DOJ, sent a letter Wednesday threatening to subpoena the city of Berkeley if it does not hand over documents showing whether or not local law enforcement is sharing information with federal immigration authorities.

Berkeley is one of 23 “sanctuary” jurisdictions across the country to receive this threat along with San Francisco, Los Angeles and the state of California.

The DOJ’s subpoena threat is the latest in a series of efforts to penalize jurisdictions that do not fully comply with federal immigration law. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned the city last November that its sanctuary policy may violate federal law. President Trump also signed an executive order in January 2017 targeting sanctuary cities.

“Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law,” Sessions said in a statement. “Enough is enough.”

Councilmember Ben Bartlett said that should the DOJ make good on its threat, he assumes the city of Berkeley would resist handing over the documents, and that the case would go to court if city officials were “forced to turn them over.”

“We’re concerned about the administration’s unending, intense efforts to break apart families,” Bartlett said. “Without commenting on any preparation for litigation, we are preparing to defend our people.”

Sessions’ letter suggests that Berkeley is in violation of federal statute 8 U.S.C. 1373. The statute prohibits local governments from enacting policies that limit communication with the federal government about individuals’ immigration or citizenship status, according to Leti Volpp, campus law professor and director of the campus Center for Race and Gender.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 54 and Assembly Bill 450 into law last October, affirming California’s sanctuary status. AB 450 protects employees from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, raids in the workplace, while SB 54 provides protection for undocumented residents.

“This is more saber-rattling by the Trump administration,” Volpp said in an email. “The law has been around since 1996. The jurisdictions are well aware of its requirements, and there is no reason to think they are not in compliance.”

Volpp added that federal law does not require jurisdictions to ask its residents about their immigration status — it only requires that jurisdictions do not outlaw the sharing of information with federal enforcement.

“If a locality does not collect that information, there is no information to share,” Volpp said in an email.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín reaffirmed the city of Berkeley’s commitment to defending its residents against the Trump administration.

“We will not falter in our commitment to protect our neighbors and our values,” Arreguín said in a statement. “We join countless cities throughout the country in standing up against this intimidation.”

Contact Anjali Shrivastava at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anjalii_shrivas.