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The Washington PostMay 28, 201710min474

As the Trump administration’s war on “sanctuary cities” heats up, cities have come up with increasingly creative ways to fight back. The latest example comes from Denver, which just passed a law aimed at protecting legal immigrants from being deported for committing relatively petty crimes, those carrying maximum sentences of 365 days — the federal government’s tripwire for kicking people out.

The city’s solution? Simply take a bunch of those relatively petty offenses and reduce the maximum penalty to less than 365 days. Just like that, the move takes the crimes (and their perpetrators) off the radar of immigration authorities.

It’s not a novel approach to protecting immigrants, but coming as a direct response to President Trump’s crackdown, it’s particularly timely.

The action does not affect more serious crimes and does not protect undocumented immigrants. Under federal law, an immigrant living in the United States legally can be deported for committing a low-level crime, like shoplifting or trespassing, as long as that offense carries a potential sentence of one year.

This means that even someone living in the country with a green card or student visa can be flagged to immigration officials — and deported — for such misdemeanors.

Tens of thousands of legal residents have been deported for relatively minor offenses in recent decades. But under previous administrations, immigration authorities have often let low-level offenders off the hook. Now, under Trump, immigrants feel the threat of deportation more than ever, advocates say, whether they are residing here legally or not.

The proposal passed Denver’s city council Monday night. In making the change, Denver is sending a clear message to the federal government that it will not “bend to a broken immigration system,” said the city’s mayor, Michael Hancock, who proposed the sentencing revisions. They will help “keep families together by ensuring low level offenses, like park curfew, are not a deportation tool,” he said.

Previously, nearly all municipal crimes in Denver carried a maximum sentence of 365 days. But under the new approach, that maximum year-long sentence is only reserved for seven of the most serious offenses, including violent assaults and repeated domestic violence.

Crimes including shoplifting, trespassing, the first or second instance of domestic violence, and simple assault will now be eligible for a maximum 300 days in jail. Even pettier offenses, such as public urination, and curfew violations would merit up to 60 days.

“Over the past four months, the White House has issued a series of executive orders that have exacerbated our broken immigration system and have had a real impact on our community,” Hancock said in a statement. “I have heard from many who are rightfully concerned. Denver is committed to taking actions that will protect our people’s rights and keep our city safe, welcoming and open.”

Denver is just one of dozens of cities and states across the country doing battle with Trump administration executive orders aimed at cracking down on immigration and travel. Suits brought by cities and states against the orders have tied them up in courts for the time being.

In response to a court order blocking the administration’s attempt to strip funding from “sanctuary cities,” a memo released by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday offered the government’s first official definition: Sessions said sanctuary cities are those that violate a federal law requiring local and state governments to share information with federal officials about immigrants’ citizenship or legal status.

Sessions has taken steps to revoke federal funding from nine jurisdictions, each of which contends that it has complied with the law, The Washington Post reported.

As a part of its budget proposal released Tuesday, the Justice Department is pushing to change federal law so that local jurisdictions can be forced to detain suspected illegal immigrants upon request. The law would block cities from enacting policies that stop compliance with legal Department of Homeland Security requests, including “any request to maintain custody of the alien for a period not to exceed 48 hours,” The Post reported.

Although Denver notifies Immigration and Customs Enforcement of impending releases of immigrants from jail upon request, it is one of many cities across the country that has declined to hold inmates for ICE if they otherwise are eligible for release.

Yet despite Hancock’s efforts to push policies that protect immigrants, the mayor has refrained from calling Denver a “sanctuary city.”

“The mayor has literally said you can call us whatever you want,” Amber Miller, communications director for the mayor’s office, told The Post. The term has “no legal meaning,” she said.

“We are operating in a very vague environment right now,” Miller said. The mayor is “focusing on taking real actions that will actually impact people’s safety,” she said. “Labels don’t get you that.”

The mayor acknowledged that many will hear about the changes and feel that he is advocating for illegal behavior. But he said, “it is the right and the duty of any individual in this city to report crime without fear of being punished. We want and need Denver residents to trust local law enforcement.”

“This is not about shielding violent people,” Hancock said. “I will not play political games with the safety of our community.”

Some immigrant advocates say the proposed sentencing restructuring doesn’t go far enough, and suggested lessening even higher-level misdemeanor sentences to 364 days in jail to help keep offenders off the federal radar, the Denver Post reported.

This would remove Denver from the “business of immigration enforcement,” Julie Gonzales, the policy director for the Meyer Law Office, a Denver firm that specializes in immigration cases, told the newspaper.

The sentencing revisions, the mayor said, go “hand in hand” with a new system established in recent weeks allowing people to resolve traffic tickets by mail. Undocumented immigrants, particularly in recent months, have grown hesitant about interacting with public safety officials and going into courthouses.

Their fears are justified, Miller said. “We are seeing ICE at our courts more and more looking to pick up undocumented immigrants,” he said. As a result, many people aren’t taking care of their traffic infractions, which only get worse over time.

“We know many hard-working immigrants are afraid to come to the courthouse right now,” Hancock said. “But avoiding court dates or failing to resolve tickets is not the answer.”

This is not the first time local officials and immigration advocates nationwide have pushed for such sentencing changes.

But according to Daniel Kanstroom, a law professor and co-director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, most U.S. citizens remain unaware of the “terrible toll,” of the harsh deportation mandates that affect legally residing immigrants, he wrote in an opinion articlein the New York Times in September.

In the 1990s, new laws mandated deportation for any long-term legal immigrant for a vast array of crimes — including minor drug offenses — without the possibility of judges’ discretion, Kanstroom wrote.

“Since then, we have experienced a deportation frenzy,” Kanstroom wrote. In addition to millions of undocumented deportees, tens of thousands of legal residents have been deported as “aggravated felons” for state misdemeanors like shoplifting or for minor drug offenses, he added.

So for many advocates, Kyle Huelsman, the policy manager for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, Denver has taken a positive step, he told the Denver Post.

“Creating automatic deportation as punishment is not a punishment we want to endorse,” he said.

The Washington PostMay 16, 20179min330

WASHINGTON – A little-noticed document issued by President Donald Trump has put advocates of medical marijuana on edge, raising questions about the long-term security of programs now authorized in 29 states and the District that have broad public backing.

In a “signing statement” that accompanied Trump’s signature on the bill passed this month to keep the government open, the president noted a handful of objections on legal grounds, including to a provision that prohibits his administration from interfering with state-run medical marijuana programs.

White House aides indicated that none of Trump’s objections to Congress’s work signaled immediate policy changes. But given how vocal Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been toward relaxing marijuana restrictions, those who support the burgeoning industry are worried about what could come next.

“It just creates a lot of uncertainty, and that uncertainty is deeply concerning for patients and providers,” said Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that has sought to roll back the nation’s war on drugs. “We had thought medical marijuana wasn’t really in play in terms of a crackdown.”

Such concerns are being voiced more broadly about the direction of marijuana policy under the new leadership at the Justice Department.

Sessions last week directed federal prosecutors to get significantly tougher on drug defendants than under the Obama administration. And a task force launched by Sessions is looking at changes in enforcement particularly regarding marijuana, a drug that remains illegal on the federal level despite significant movement in numerous states in recent years to loosen restrictions.

The eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use could be at greater risk for federal intervention than those that have only approved dispensing medical cannabis or cannabis-infused products to patients with a doctor’s recommendation.

As a candidate for president, Trump repeatedly voiced support for medical marijuana, a concept that has been increasingly embraced by fellow Republicans at the state level. Of the 29 states that have authorized programs, Trump prevailed in last year’s election over Democrat Hillary Clinton in nine of them.

Meanwhile, a Quinnipiac poll last month found that 94 percent of Americans – including 90 percent of Republicans – supported allowing adults to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctors prescribe it.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said earlier this year that he expects states to be subject to “greater enforcement” of federal laws against marijuana use, though he also said Trump sees “a big difference” between use of marijuana for medical purposes and for recreational purposes.

Sessions, however, said at an appearance in Richmond, earlier this year, that medical marijuana “has been hyped, maybe too much.”

A Justice Department spokesman declined to discuss what future steps might be taken related to medical marijuana but said the provision in the spending bill is of concern to officials.

“The Department of Justice must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives,” said spokesman Ian Prior, who wouldn’t discuss the issue further.

Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the May 5 signing statement is troubling, even if a federal crackdown is not in the offing, because it could have “a chilling effect on a nascent industry.”

Of particular concern, he said, is the impact it could have on investors in dispensaries in states where programs are just coming on line. A prosecution of a single business in one state could have a devastating impact in that regard, he added.

The provision in question, which has been part of federal law since late 2014, prohibits the Justice Department from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana programs. It was co-authored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who, by his own description, is “a very strong supporter” of Trump.

“I will treat this provision consistently with my constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” Trump wrote in the signing statement.

Signing statements became prevalent under President George W. Bush and have often been used to preserve objections rather than to signal new action.

President Barack Obama continued the practice, routinely citing provisions in spending bills that he said conflicted with authority granted to him under the constitution.

Trump also objected on constitutional grounds to several other sections of the first spending bill he signed, including one related to a program that helps historically black colleges and universities get low-cost construction loans. That prompted an outcry from African American lawmakers, prompting Trump to release a statement about his commitment to HBCUs.

Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority, said comments from Trump and the Justice Department on medical marijuana “doesn’t necessarily mean a crackdown is coming, but it’s a concerning signal.”

“Essentially [Trump is] saying he reserves the right to ignore this congressionally approved provision,” Angell said.

If the administration moves in that direction, it won’t be without a fight, Rohrabacher said.

The congressman, who has used cannabis himself to ease pain from severe arthritis in his shoulders caused by years of surfing, said he’s confident his side would prevail in court because Congress clearly has “the power of the purse.”

Rohrabacher said it appears that members of Trump’s administration are working to “reposition” him on the issue of medical marijuana.

“I think there are a lot of people running around trying to paint the president into a corner on this,” Rohrabacher said, adding that he is eager to talk to Trump about it directly.

In August 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled a similar provision passed by Congress prevented the Justice Department from spending money on prosecutions in states where medical marijuana was legal – so long as those being prosecuted abided by state law.

More broadly, James Cole, a deputy attorney general in the Obama administration, had directed prosecutors to enforce all federal drug laws – even in places that had legalized marijuana – but said they should look to states’ regulatory systems to determine whether their intervention was necessary.

Cole wrote that federal authorities should essentially stay out of states that had robust regulatory systems in place.

Cole’s memo is among the policies now being actively reviewed by the new leadership at the Justice Department.

The issue of medical marijuana will need to be revisited again by Congress in coming months. The provision sponsored by Rohrabacher expires on Sept. 30, at the end of the federal fiscal year, and would have to be adopted again to stay on the books.

The Washington PostApril 10, 20177min272
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The Washington PostApril 7, 201710min280
The U.S. Senate confirmed Neil M. Gorsuch to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, capping more than a year of bitter partisan bickering over the ideological balance of the nation’s highest court. Senators voted to confirm Gorsuch, 49, a Denver-based judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, who will become the […]

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