WASHINGTON (CN) – House Republicans railed against a Justice Department consent decree with the New Orleans Police Department Tuesday, claiming that it violates federal immigration law.
Contrary to the department’s prior practices, the consent decree prevents its police officers from considering an individual’s immigration status in the course of carrying out their law enforcement duties.
Republicans accused the Justice Department and law enforcement officials in New Orleans of colluding to make communities in sanctuary cities less safe, claiming that the consent decree and similar policies enable the release of thousands of undocumented criminals into American neighborhoods.
“New Orleans could claim that DOJ’s heavy hand forced it to become a sanctuary city and endanger its residents, when in fact, it was a willing participant,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
“The consent decree was a shocking action on the part of DOJ. The chief law enforcement agency of the federal government acted to impede the enforcement of federal law,” he said, adding that the policy appears to directly contradict the law.
New Orleans is one of approximately 300 sanctuary jurisdictions in the U.S., which allow local and state law enforcement agencies to ignore federal detainers that enable Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take custody of some people in the country unlawfully.
The consent decree between the Justice Department and the New Orleans Police Department emerged from a 2010 request by the law enforcement agency to investigate its policing practices, and an alleged pattern of civil rights violations .
The principal deputy assistant attorney general, Vanita Gupta, told the Immigration and Border Security subcommittee that the investigation uncovered a pattern and practice of discriminatory policing.
That included the use of excessive force, unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests, and racial and ethnic profiling, she said.
Goodlatte said the threat of a civil lawsuit against the police department led to the consent decree, which stipulates that law enforcement officers cannot inquire about a person’s immigration status.
Gupta staunchly defended the decree to heated Republicans, asserting that the department believes the policy complies with federal law.
However, the agency recently updated the policy after its inspector general Michael Horowitz issued a May 31 memo outlining ambiguity in the policy’s directives that could cause local law enforcement officers to implement part of the decree unlawfully.
Gupta said the recent changes were made in “an abundance of caution” to insure clarity and compliance, and also noted that the agency sought judicial review of the policy.
One aspect of the law in question prohibits federal, state and local government entities and officials from barring or restricting the ability of other government entities and officials to communicate with federal immigration officials about a person’s citizenship and immigration status.
The four-witness panel, including Gupta, Louisiana’s attorney general Jeff Landry, Horowitz and Zach Butterworth from the New Orleans mayor’s office, seemed to agree that the consent decree complies with that part of the law.
The primary issue that emerged during the hearing is whether the updated policy complies with another part of the law, which dictates that no person or agency can prohibit or restrict federal, state or local government entities from sending, requesting and receiving immigration information from ICE, or maintaining or exchanging that information with other local, state and federal government entities.
The updated consent decree does not specifically mention the “requesting” portion of that aspect of the law, which drew questions from the subcommittee’s Republicans about the new policy’s legality.
Landry said the language of the policy frustrates the intent of the law.
When pressed, Horowitz declined making a legal determination about that part of the policy’s legal compliance, but Gupta insisted the policy is legal.
Gupta, along with the subcommittee’s Democrats, hailed the consent decree and the New Orleans Police Department reforms as an important step to improve police relations with the communities they serve.
“Community trust policies are integral to smart law enforcement for diverse communities, including those with immigration populations like New Orleans and my district in Michigan,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.
Conyers called Republican allegations “false and offensive,” and said the hearing was about pushing “anti-immigrant politics and fear mongering.”
Undocumented crime victims and witnesses will be more likely to cooperate with law enforcement officials if they do not fear deportation as a consequence, he said.
Gupta said that ultimately improves public safety.
“When police departments engage in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing, their actions can severely erode community trust and profoundly undermine public safety,” she said, later noting that engaging in discriminatory policing is against the law.
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