Colorado challenges US withholding of $2.7M in funds over immigration

James Anderson
Associated Press

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announces he is filing a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration seeking public safety grants being withheld in a dispute over immigration enforcement during a news conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Denver. Gov. Jared Polis, standing behind Weiser, and Democratic lawmakers attended the announcement. (Jesse Paul/The Colorado Sun via AP)

DENVER — Colorado filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging a Trump administration decision to withhold $2.7 million in public safety funds from the state unless it agrees to enhance cooperation on immigration enforcement.

Gov. Jared Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser argue the enforcement conditions were added by the Justice Department after the state had been awarded the money, which had already been appropriated by Congress.

It’s the latest court challenge to repeated attempts by the Trump administration to tie public safety grants awarded each year to states and municipalities to their willingness to assist Department of Homeland Security efforts to locate, detain and deport people in the country illegally.

The Justice Department claims that governments adopting what it calls “sanctuary” policies — declining to cooperate closely with federal immigration agents — threaten public safety.

Polis reiterated arguments that such collaboration threatens public safety by sowing distrust between immigrant communities and police agencies.

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“We’re simply not going to allow Colorado’s public safety to be held hostage to the Trump administration or any administration,” the Democratic governor said. “Under this precedent, tomorrow it could be our health care dollars.”

A message seeking comment from the Justice Department wasn’t immediately returned.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Colorado, names the Justice Department and Attorney General William Barr as defendants.

It contends the grants were awarded in 2018 but were withheld because the department added several conditions, including requiring that Colorado guarantee access to local jails by Department of Homeland Security agents to ask inmates their immigration status.

Weiser, also a Democrat, noted that courts across the nation have struck down similar restrictions on the Justice Assistance Grant funding. He said the suit seeks to compel the department to release the grants, which support law enforcement, judicial and other programs for a variety of state and local agencies and municipalities.

Courts have reversed Justice Department efforts in 2017 to withhold the public safety funds from states, cities and municipalities. In October, following successful legal challenges by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and others, Denver was awarded nearly $424,000 in public safety funding that had been withheld more than a year.

In February, a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered a permanent injunction against requiring police departments to cooperate with immigration authorities in order to receive the grants.

The more than 40 Colorado grants at stake in Tuesday’s lawsuit include nearly $64,000 to expand a Bayfield Marshal’s Office community policing program in southwestern Colorado, and $15,000 to replace police communications equipment in the city of Wray in the northeast plains.

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