Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell

The war of words between the U.S. Department of Justice and Louisville elected officials continued last week, as Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell sent a letter to the federal agency telling it to rescind its threat to subpoena documents and withhold grant funding, once again insisting that the Metro Council immigration ordinance signed into law last year fully complies with federal immigration law.

O’Connell’s letter added that despite the efforts of his office and that of Mayor Greg Fischer to cooperate and share information with the DOJ, the federal agency has been unresponsive and only corresponds through form letters and threatening news releases.

This dispute began in November when the DOJ included Louisville on its list of 29 jurisdictions that might be in violation of federal laws requiring local officials to share information with federal immigration officials, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions stating that cities with “sanctuary policies” believe “the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and the rule of law.”

While the assistant attorney general stated in his letter to O’Connell last year that Louisville’s ordinance might violate 8 USC § 1373 of federal law, O’Connell replied in a December letter that the ordinance merely codified that LMPD officers might only assist federal agents in the enforcement of immigration laws when there is a judicial warrant or a risk to public safety. He added that DOJ had completely misinterpreted the ordinance in question, as it explicitly states that it did not prevent local officials from sharing immigration information with a federal agency.

However, in January the DOJ once again issued a letter to Louisville and news release naming it as one of 23 local jurisdictions that might still be in violation of the same federal statute, further threatening to subpoena documents and withhold grants for law enforcement unless the city provided documents proving that it was in compliance. In the release, Sessions urged such cities “to reconsider policies that place the safety of their communities and their residents at risk.”

“Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law,” stated Sessions. “We have seen too many examples of the threat to public safety represented by jurisdictions that actively thwart the federal government’s immigration enforcement — enough is enough.”

This new letter received immediate pushback from Mayor Greg Fischer, who described it in a statement as an “unnecessary threat” and “picking fights for political reasons.” In a news conference that same day, Fischer questioned the competence of the DOJ, in that he and other local officials had already sent back proof that they were in compliance with federal law, adding that “perhaps the mailbox at the DOJ should be checked.”

According to the mayor’s office, the Byrne Memorial Justice Grants that the DOJ is threatening to rescind and withhold from Louisville in the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years total nearly $1.2 million.

In his letter from Feb. 23 replying to the DOJ, O’Connell led by stating that the federal agency’s last letter did not cite anything specific within the ordinance that would rise to the level of noncompliance by the city, calling that “tacit confirmation that the ordinance does not facially violate 8 USC § 1373.”

O’Connell then went on to note that the DOJ has “newly raised concerns” that the ordinance might be interpreted or applied in a manner inconsistent with the statute, but added, “please let me state clearly: these newly found qualms are unwarranted.”

He went on to state that the federal law in question did not compel the sharing of immigration status information, but only prohibits policies that would impede such sharing. After surveying the policies of LMPD, Metro Corrections and the Metro Fire Department, O’Connell wrote that “there are no policies which prohibit or impede the sharing of information between the locality and Washington.”

O’Connell’s letter then criticized the process of the DOJ’s inquiry as unresponsive and unfair. As for the threat to withhold federal grants — which he noted “help local law enforcement officers make the country safer” — he stated he could find nothing that tied them to compliance with the federal statute in question, though “Louisville Metro has spent the last several months, in the spirit of cooperation, attempting to comply with DOJ’s inquiries.”

Noting that his civil division director called the DOJ on Jan. 18 to ask about the status of the inquiry and ask if any additional information was needed, O’Connell added that “rather than responding in kind, Louisville Metro received a form letter from Washington with these newly found concerns” on Jan. 24.

“This form letter, sent to 22 other local government, was issued with a DOJ press release stating that the DOJ ‘threatens’ local governments with subpoenas,” wrote O’Connell. “Our Mayor immediately reached out to the White House Intergovernmental Affairs liaison several times in an attempt to directly communicate with the Department of Justice on this issue. These efforts were to no avail.”

O’Connell’s letter concludes, “Given our cooperation and the material we have provided, I ask that you rescind your letter against Louisville Metro and remove us from your list.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, has filed House Bill 240, which would withhold all state funds from local governments and universities that “harbor illegal aliens” and fail to cooperate with federal agencies in the enforcement of immigration laws. The bill has not yet been taken up in the House Judiciary Committee.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]