President-elect Donald Trump has said he will punish American cities that fail to cooperate with federal immigration authorities seeking to detain and deport undocumented immigrants, a stance that sets up a potential clash with local officials in New Orleans.
But as with most campaign promises, predicting how this one ultimately may affect the city or the unknown number of immigrants who live and work in the area illegally is more complicated than simply going by what Trump said on the campaign trail.
For one thing, there is a dispute over whether New Orleans really is a so-called “sanctuary city,” an unofficial designation for municipalities with policies or laws preventing local officials from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.
On the other hand, the politics of such an effort could be dicey. Trump does have a prominent local ally in Louisiana’s attorney general, Jeff Landry. But the leading national police union, which endorsed Trump, is against that kind of interference with local law enforcement.
And it is not just local elected officials that the Trump administration would be up against in trying to force New Orleans to assist with detentions and deportations. Rules barring the New Orleans Police Department from cooperating with immigration officials have been written into a federal reform agreement, known as a consent decree, that is overseen by a federal judge.
Immigration advocates will doubtless be pressing for city officials to resist federal attempts to force local law enforcement to cooperate with deportations.
“We’re definitely in a tough position, but also at the same time, situations like this are what define us as people and as a city,” said Fernando Lopez, an organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers, an immigrant-rights group. “I think it’s up to us as a city to really draw the line and be committed to defend the policy.”
The Police Department and immigration advocates spent months last year crafting a policy on which both sides finally agreed. A new set of policies, rolled out in February 2016, prohibit officers from assisting federal immigration authorities except in life-threatening situations or to fulfill a warrant. Officers also are forbidden from asking about the immigration status of any person they encounter.
City officials say the local office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raised no objections. U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who is overseeing the NOPD’s court-ordered reform agreement with the Department of Justice, signed off on the policy.
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, meanwhile, operates under a separate policy that generally prohibits deputies from investigating the immigration status of inmates at the local jail.
These policies, in New Orleans and elsewhere, came under fire even before Trump targeted them on the stump.
In April, Jeff Landry, a conservative Republican newly installed as attorney general, pushed unsuccessfully for a bill at the Legislature that, in its initial form, would have allowed him to strip New Orleans of the ability to borrow money for infrastructure projects if it maintained its immigration policies. And in September he testified about sanctuary cities before Congress.
Trump, who had already been using fierce rhetoric about immigration on the campaign trail, echoed the same theme on sanctuary cities shortly afterward, rolling out a proposal similar to Landry’s that would apply across the country.
“We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths,” Trump said. “Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars, and we will work with Congress to pass legislation to protect those jurisdictions that do assist federal authorities.”
Trump hasn’t detailed how he plans to carry out his pledges on immigration, but he has nominated U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general. And Sessions has advocated taking a hard line, suggesting the federal government should cut funding to cities that do not cooperate with immigration authorities.
In New Orleans, federal grant money makes up almost 11 percent of the city’s annual budget.
In a statement, Landry said he was optimistic that Trump’s White House will crack down. “I believe we have created a model for the Trump administration and the rest of the country to follow by pointing out that sanctuary city policies are in violation of federal law and that their grant money will be at risk if they continue,” he said.
Still, the resistance to Landry’s bill in Louisiana is suggestive of the political trouble Trump’s attempts to bring cities in line may run into.
The bill failed after coming under heavy fire from a constituency that would otherwise be a natural ally of tough-on-crime politicians: local sheriffs, who saw it as an attempt to interfere with how they run their agencies.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, a Republican, called it “some overarching bulls*** Republican philosophy from Washington, D.C.”
The national Fraternal Order of Police, which backed Trump in his election bid, is opposed to withholding money over immigration policies as well.
In New Orleans, Trump would face an additional stumbling block if he tries to force the city into changing its immigration policy by withholding funds. The February immigration policy was cemented into a federal court order, courtesy of Judge Morgan.
“Absent a change in the law, the federal government does not dictate to the NOPD what its enforcement policy is,” said David Douglass, the court-appointed deputy monitor for the consent decree.
One exception would be if a Justice Department led by Sessions moves in court to overturn the NOPD’s immigration policy. But Morgan would then have to overrule her earlier decision, likely over the objections of the city.
“They would have to get both the NOPD and Judge Morgan to approve, and I really don’t think that Judge Morgan, given the strength and commitment she’s shown to the process, is likely to bend to that kind of pressure,” Douglass said.
For his part, Mayor Mitch Landrieu disputes the idea that New Orleans is really a sanctuary city and said he holds out hope that Congress can find a way to reach a compromise on immigration that might forestall a showdown.
“We are technically and legally not a sanctuary city,” Landrieu said. Landrieu’s argument hinges on the claims that the city is in compliance with current federal law and has the approval of agencies within the Obama administration.
Pressed on whether the incoming Trump administration would view the situation in the same light, Landrieu said he didn’t foresee any problems unless the new president “decides he wants the NOPD to turn into a deportation force.” He added, “That’s not going to happen. That’s the federal government’s responsibility.”
The mayor also held out the possibility that after years of stalemate, the next Congress could work out an immigration reform plan.
The country’s immigration policy needs to “control our borders, provide a pathway to citizenship and get rid of the folks who are committing bad crimes,” Landrieu said. “There’s a way to do that if the folks in Congress will work together.”
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.