Editorial: Police have plenty to do without Trump coercing them into immigration enforcement

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are shown outside a San Fernando Valley home in 2012.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are shown outside a San Fernando Valley home in 2012.
(Los Angeles Times)

After a series of victories in their fight against the Trump administration’s draconian war on immigration, Los Angeles and other so-called sanctuary cities lost a battle last week: An appellate court ruled that the U.S. Department of Justice may give preference in awarding grants to police departments that agree to help the federal government catch and deport immigrants.

The decision is troubling. For one thing, it rewards President Trump’s myopic focus on immigration to the exclusion of other critical public safety issues. And it could embolden his administration in its efforts to bully local police into enforcing immigration law, which is solely a federal responsibility.

Worse, the decision upholds rules that essentially require cities to undermine their own proven public safety strategies in order to improve their chances of obtaining federal dollars for public safety. The Los Angeles Police Department, which serves a large immigrant population, long ago recognized that if people living in the country illegally view local cops as immigration agents, they are less likely to report crimes, cooperate in investigations or interact with them at all. That is dangerous.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer in 2017 challenging new rules for the federal government’s long-standing Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS grant program, which provides money to hire police officers. Led by then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice announced it would give extra points in the new scoring criteria to agencies that said they would use the money to help with the “control of illegal immigration.” Agencies also got bonus points if they committed to giving federal authorities access to local jails so they could interview people in custody to determine if they are in the country illegally, and 48-hour notice before releasing them.

Feuer argued that the criteria conflicted with Los Angeles Police Department policies. In particular, he argued that the city’s detention facilities, unlike county jail, rarely hold people for more than 48 hours and don’t have scheduled release times. It would be virtually impossible to give federal authorities 48 hours’ advance notice without holding individuals in jail longer, which would violate the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable seizure.


Instead, Los Angeles submitted an application for $3.1 million to hire officers to focus on mentoring and partnerships with residents in one of the city’s deadliest neighborhoods. The city’s application was denied, while Sessions announced that 80% of the new grantees had “agreed to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in their detention facilities.”

Last year, a federal judge agreed with Feuer and issued a nationwide ban on giving bonus points for illegal immigration enforcement within the Community Oriented Policing Services program. The judge said the conditions the Trump administration had insisted on violated the separation of powers laid out in the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress, not the executive branch, control of government purse strings.

Now, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the earlier ruling. In its 2-1 decision, the majority said the law that created the COPS program gave the Department of Justice broad authority to award grants according to the administration’s priorities, and that using community policing funds to address immigration enforcement is “entirely reasonable.” Moreover, the majority said that the scoring criteria “encouraged, but did not coerce, an applicant to cooperate on immigration matters.”

But that opinion overlooks the fact that encouraging cities to help with immigration enforcement, particularly in Los Angeles and other cities with large immigrant populations, contradicts the entire purpose of the COPS grant program, which is to foster trust and partnership between the police and the community. What resident would work cooperatively with police on local public safety if he or she is worried that doing so will expose family, friends or neighbors to deportation? Surely that is not what Congress intended when the COPS program was created.

Until now, federal courts have largely blocked the Trump administration’s attempts to tie funding to immigration enforcement, including the president’s executive order to withhold federal dollars for sanctuary cities. Those rulings have bolstered the arguments from Los Angeles and other cities that they shouldn’t be pressured by the Trump administration into becoming satellite arms of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, particularly when such work could discourage crime reporting and witness cooperation, which makes communities less safe.

Police here have plenty to do without adding immigration enforcement to their workload.