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Crime and Courts

Colorado sues Trump administration for money withheld over immigration enforcement

Lawsuit claims Trump administration doesn't have authority to hold back $2.7 million in public safety grants based on Colorado's refusal to comply with certain federal immigration enforcement demands

From left: Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and Gov. Jared Polis on March, 12, 2019, at the Colorado Capitol announce a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its decision to withhold law enforcement funding. The Democrats said the legal action is being made in Denver's federal court. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser are teaming up to sue the Trump administration over its decision to withhold $2.7 million in public safety funds because of the state’s refusal to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

“We don’t have these funds because the Trump administration is attempting to withhold the money if Colorado doesn’t go along with a series of ‘special conditions,’ ” Polis said at a news conference in his Capitol office on Tuesday. “These special conditions are not laws, they have not been authorized or passed by the United States Congress. They are merely the Trump administration’s attempt to bully states and local law enforcement.”

The U.S. Department of Justice did not give Colorado its Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants for 2018 because of a provision preventing the funding from being provided in places that don’t allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to interview people about their immigration status in jails.

The Justice Department also wanted Colorado’s jails to inform immigration agents if they were about to release someone who is in the country illegally. When the state refused, the Justice Department withheld $2.7 million slated for Department of Public Safety use across Colorado.

“The federal government is seeking to coerce Colorado law enforcement,” Weiser said.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, speaks to reporters in Gov. Jared Polis’ Capitol office on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. He is surrounded by state lawmakers. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In the past, the federal money had been used in Colorado for a wide array of programs. The 2018 money was budgeted to pay for everything from new police radios at Fort Lewis College in Durango to therapeutic mentoring of youth at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Other states and cities, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have successfully challenged the Trump administration over the same issue.

“We believe we are on solid legal footing to secure these funds,” Polis said.

He added that the precedent set by the Trump administration’s decision to withhold funding in this case is what’s most troubling.

“Today, it’s about justice grants for unrelated immigration conditions,” Polis said. “Under this precedent, tomorrow it could be our healthcare dollars or support for childhood nutrition … or some other federal policy with no connection to the welfare of our residents. Federal law is not subject to the whim of the president.”

There were questions about whether Denver’s Byrne Justice Assistance Grants would be withheld for 2017 over the city’s so-called “sanctuary policies.” But the money was awarded after the city backed a lawsuit to secure the funds.

Colorado is suing on the grounds that the Trump administration lacks the authority to stipulate how the funds are used, and argues the issue should be decided by Congress. The lawsuit also claims the administration didn’t have a public comment period as required.

Polis declined to answer questions about his feelings on the immigration policies that led the Trump administration to withhold the money, saying “it just doesn’t matter in the legal context of the case.”

However, he did say that “if local police are forced to carry out the Trump administration’s agenda, it will hurt trust between police and our communities. Witnesses to crimes will be less likely to come forward.”

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters in his Capitol office on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The lawsuit is notable because it’s the first one Weiser has filed against the Trump administration independent of other states. He has vowed to be a check on the White House, but so far has joined legal actions led by other Democratic attorneys general.

Weiser joined a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its national emergency declaration to fund construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and has vowed to bring a number of other cases.

The case will be filed in Colorado federal court.

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