Mayor Greg Fischer | Photo by Joe Sonka

An official with the U.S. Department of Justice reiterated in a letter to Mayor Greg Fischer on Wednesday that Louisville’s policies might violate federal immigration law, threatening to subpoena documents and cut the city off from a federal grant.

Fischer immediately pushed back against the letter in a statement released on social media and comments at a national conference of mayors in D.C., disputing the agency’s claims and calling a subpoena an “unnecessary threat.”

The mayor added that “picking fights for political reasons is a disservice to all Louisvillians, Kentuckians and Americans.”

The letter escalates a dispute between the federal department and city officials that began in November, when the Justice Department included Louisville on its list of 29 local jurisdictions that may be in violation of federal laws promoting information sharing related to immigration enforcement.

Attorney General Jeff Session stated at the time that “jurisdictions that adopt so-called sanctuary policies also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law.”

In a letter sent to Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell in November, assistant Attorney General Alan Hanson expressed concern over a new ordinance passed by Louisville Metro Council in October, which codified that city police officers would only assist federal agencies enforcing immigration laws when there is a risk of violence or a judicial warrant.

While city officials believed that this did not make Louisville a so-called sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, Hanson questioned whether this violated federal immigration law by prohibiting local officials from sharing information with federal agents, which could disqualify the city from the agency’s federal grants.

In a five-page letter reply in December, O’Connell wrote that Hanson’s concerns about the ordinance were unwarranted and that he had completely misinterpreted it, as it in no way prohibits “the maintenance, sharing, or conveyance of information” with federal immigration agencies.

However, Fischer was sent a letter Wednesday by Jon Adler — the director of the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance — stating that the department remains concerns that the city’s policies are in violation of federal immigration law. Adler goes on to request all documents related to how law enforcement officials were to communicate with federal officials, stating that if the city does not respond in a complete or timely matter, “the Department will subpoena these documents.”

Adler added that should his agency determine that Louisville is out of compliance with federal law, the Justice Department may seek the return of the federal grants it distributed in 2016 and deem Louisville ineligible for future grants.

After receiving the letter, Fischer issued a statement on social media pushing back against it, adding that the Justice Department had only provided feedback to O’Connell’s letter “until moments ago.”

“Before accusations are made, we expect a basic level of evidence, which the DOJ has not provided,” stated Fischer. “As outlined in the county attorney’s original letter, Louisville is both in compliance with federal law and a welcoming city. We will provide the additional documents sought; a subpoena is an unnecessary threat. Picking fights for political reasons is a disservice to all Louisvillians, Kentuckians and Americans.”

Fischer also addressed the letter that afternoon at a news conference of the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in D.C., stating that “there is no conflict with being in compliance with federal law, being a welcoming city, and supporting our local police.”

“This false narrative that continues to be put forth by the federal and many of our state governments continues to divide our country, when the bedrock of American has always been built on people trusting each other in the hopes of a better tomorrow,” said Fischer. “And without this trust as an essential part of our system and our society, we have to fight every day.”

Fischer added that “we also expect a certain level of competence from elected officials,” implying that a number of mayors from the 29 cities have already provided the Justic Department with evidence that they are within compliance of federal immigration laws.

“This notice today is insisting that people send proof that they are in compliance with federal law, and I would bet that many of us up here have already done that,” said Fischer. “So perhaps the mailbox at DOJ should be checked, so that they can see the mayors of America are going about doing their job, responding when required, and getting about the business of growing our city for all of our citizens.”

Louisville Metro Council President David James also issued a statement pushing back against the Department of Justice, indicating that the city would fully comply with turning over documents and sharing information related with the ordinance,  “as well as explain our reasons as to why it is necessary for our community.”

“We stand by our separation ordinance because it does not restrict any current laws laid out for how cities are to work with federal law enforcement in dealing with immigration,” stated James. “This is a question of safety for our city. It is unfortunate that at a time when immigration is such a high-profile issue, the federal government continues to try and divide not only our nation, but now our cities. We will not let fear guide us in what is fair for all of our residents.”

In related news, Kentucky state Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, filed a bill on Tuesday that would withhold all state funds from cities and colleges “that harbor illegal aliens” and failed to cooperate with federal agencies in the enforcement of immigration laws. House Bill 240 would not just jeopardize the funding of cities like Louisville, but any public university that enrolls undocumented immigrants as students.

A video of Fischer’s statements at the mayors’ conference posted on his Facebook page can be viewed below, as well as a copy of O’Connell’s letter responding to the Department of Justice in December:

O’Connell letter to DOJ by insiderlouisville on Scribd

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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]