News Local/State

Illinois AG: DOJ Withholding Money From The State Over Immigration Policies

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Ronald Woan, Daniel X. O’Neil (CC BY 2.0)

Champaign Police Sgt. Geoff Coon said he’s waiting on roughly $50,000 in federal grant money that’s due to the central Illinois police department. Another agency that uses the funding to pay for programs that focus on recidivism and re-entry and community-based violence intervention programs in the Rockford area also hasn’t received their funding this year.

The money is part of more than $6.5 million local law enforcement agencies and other groups across the state say they’re owed through a Department of Justice program called the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant — or Byrne JAG for short. 

Coon said the money usually arrives sometime in the fall. But that didn’t happen last year. 

“I’ve reached out to our Department of Justice liaison myself to say, you know, it’s unusual to not have the funding at this point, and I couldn’t get any specific direction from the liaison,” he said. 

lawsuit filed by Attorney General Lisa Madigan last Thursday claims the U.S. Department of Justice is withholding the funds over the passage of a state law called the Illinois Trust Act. Madigan’s office is suing the DOJ and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to release the money to the state. 

The funds for the Byrne JAG grant in Illinois are distributed by a state agency called the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA). The money can be used to pay for new technology, equipment, personnel and contractual support for the purposes of law enforcement, prosecution and court programs, prevention and education programs, drug treatment, among other initiatives. 

Champaign and many other local law enforcement agencies across the country have received this money from the DOJ for more than a decade. 

Champaign city officials already approved the purchase of a 3D laser scanner with this year’s expected grant money — a device that can quickly map and measure a crime scene and then recreate it using millions of data points, according to city documents. The department previously used Byrne JAG funds to buy cameras for squad cars, tasers and training equipment for officers, according to documents. 

Madigan’s lawsuit states that the DOJ “explicitly targeted” Illinois and withheld the grant funding based on the state’s passage of the Trust Act. According to legislators who sponsored the law, its purpose is to build trust between local authorities and immigrant communities who may be hesitant to cooperate with or reach out to police for assistance for fear they’re working hand-in-hand with federal immigration officers.

The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. 

The Illinois Trust Act

The Trust Act bans local agencies from detaining immigrants solely on the basis of their immigration status. The state law also makes clear that the Trust Act is not intended as a ban on communication between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement agencies.

According to Madigan’s suit, ICJIA officials noticed an addition to the Byrne JAG funding application for 2017. The application contained several new conditions requiring recipients of the grant funding allow U.S. Department of Homeland Security employees access to any detention facility to meet with anyone believed to be an immigrant; and provide DHS with “at least 48 hours advance notice” regarding the scheduled release date of an immigrant in local law enforcement custody if requested. 

According to the suit, ICJIA applied in time for the grant deadline. But unlike many other states, cities and counties who have already received their funding, Illinois has not. 

The suit claims that Deputy Assistant Attorney General Alan Hanson of the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs sent a letter last November in response to ICJIA’s application for Byrne JAG funding. He wrote that the DOJ was concerned the Trust Act violated federal law, according to the lawsuit. 

ICJIA officials explained that the state law does not violate federal law because it does not restrict agencies from sharing immigration status information with federal authorities, according to the suit. A back and forth between Hanson and the department ensued, the suit claims. In his last letter to ICJIA in February, Hanson asked for all orders, directives, instructions, or guidance to local law enforcement regarding communication with federal immigration authorities. ICJIA officials sent the requested information, but haven’t heard anything from the DOJ since, according to the suit. 

Madigan’s office argues two points in the lawsuit: First, that the Trust Act does not violate federal law, and second, that the conditions attached to the Byrne JAG funding are unconstitutional.

Chicago’s Legal Victory Against DOJ

Chicago sued the DOJ over the same issue last year. The DOJ withheld grant funds from the city due to its sanctuary status. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Chicago in April. Initially, that ruling in Chicago’s favor was supposed to apply nationwide — meaning any other state or municipality whose funds had been withheld should have received them from the DOJ. But that ruling was amended late last month to apply only to Chicago.

Vik Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law and an expert on constitutional law, explains it this way: “The federal government says right now that we’ve been ordered to ignore our own conditions only with respect to Chicago. But with respect to everybody else, we’re going to continue to apply the conditions that we think are ones we have every right to apply.”

In other words, every other county, state or municipality whose funds have been withheld will have to sue separately for relief. 

Because the Seventh Circuit has already ruled on this issue with respect to Chicago, Amar said Madigan will most likely win this lawsuit in the lower courts — which are bound by the circuit court’s decision. It’s possible the case could make it to the Supreme Court, he said. 

Amar said even a conservative majority on the high court wouldn’t guarantee the DOJ a win on this case. 

“I don’t think a conservative Supreme Court is going to disagree necessarily with the Seventh Circuit about this,” he said. “I think the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning on the merits was pretty sound.”