Seattle will argue that an executive order by President Donald Trump violates the Constitution by trying to make local governments enforce federal immigration law.

Share story

Seattle is suing President Donald Trump over his executive order cracking down on so-called “sanctuary cities” for how they handle people living in the United States illegally.

The city is doing nothing wrong by limiting its own involvement in immigration enforcement, while Trump is overreaching by trying to make cities do the work of the federal government, Mayor Ed Murray and City Attorney Pete Holmes said Wednesday.

The goal of the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, is to have the executive order declared unconstitutional, Murray said at a news conference, accusing the Trump administration of waging “a war on cities.”

“Our lawsuit is staying true to our values,” the mayor said. “We value civil rights, we value the courts and we value the Constitution.”

Seattle is suing the federal government, Mayor Ed Murray announced today. He said the executive order by President Trump violates the constitution by trying to make local governments enforce federal law. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Murray’s announcement came two days after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice would turn up the pressure and withhold grants from “sanctuary” jurisdictions for not doing more to help the Trump administration capture and deport people.

Seattle is following in the footsteps of other jurisdictions, including San Francisco, which in late January became the first city in the country to challenge Trump’s order in court.

Most Read Stories

Save over 90% on select subscriptions.

“This administration has created an atmosphere of anxiety in cities across America and created chaos in our politics,” Murray said. “It is time for cities to stand up.”

Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order said certain cities and other local governments “willfully violate federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States.”

It said such jurisdictions “have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our republic.”

The order cited a federal law — U.S. Code Section 1373 — that covers the sharing of information between local governments and federal immigration authorities.

And it warned, far in advance of Sessions’ comments this week, that jurisdictions violating that law would be cut off from all federal grants.

Seattle expects to receive more than $150 million in federal funds this year, including $2.6 million in grants from the Department of Justice.

Murray has said he is willing to lose “every penny” of that rather than alter how the city approaches immigration enforcement.

The “sanctuary” label is unofficial. It isn’t a legal term with a single, agreed-upon definition.

Generally, people use it to describe jurisdictions with policies and practices that restrict their own roles in civil immigration enforcement.

For example, Murray refers to Seattle as a sanctuary city because of an ordinance barring city employees from inquiring about a person’s immigration status, unless required by law or court order.

Police officers are exempted when they have reason to believe a person has previously been deported and is committing or has committed a felony.

Hundreds of American cities have similar rules. Leaders of those cities say they want immigrants to feel comfortable interacting with local officers as victims of and witnesses to crimes.

“It’s when you marginalize people and drive them away from city services and make them fearful of the police and push them underground that these communities become unsafe,” Murray said.

It’s not completely clear whether the Trump administration considers Seattle a sanctuary city.

The president’s executive order characterized sanctuary jurisdictions as jurisdictions that refuse to comply with U.S. Code Section 1373, and Murray has repeatedly said that Seattle is in compliance.

Seattle law directs city employees, including police officers to “cooperate with, and not hinder, enforcement of federal immigration laws.”

Rather than prohibit city employees from sharing information with federal immigration authorities, Seattle’s sanctuary ordinance merely limits the collection of information, the city says.

But city officials say they believe the Trump administration may treat Seattle as a sanctuary city, anyway.

In its lawsuit, the city will argue Trump’s order violates the 10th Amendment of the Constitution by attempting to make local governments enforce federal immigration law.

Seattle also will argue the executive order violates the Taxing and Spending Clause of the Constitution by holding hostage, for matters of immigration enforcement, funds not directly related to immigration enforcement.

Though the Trump administration has yet to withhold grants from Seattle or take action against the city in any way, the city will argue it has standing to sue because the executive order has created uncertainty and made it difficult for Murray to draw up his next city budget.

The mayor said the lawsuit is personal for him. He mentioned meeting with Seattle Public Schools students from immigrant families and said his grandparents faced discrimination when they emigrated from Ireland.

“The intensity is because I’ve spent time in classrooms in this city and I’ve seen how scared these kids are,” Murray said.

The city is working on the lawsuit with the international law firm Mayer Brown, and Andrew Pincus, a high-powered attorney with the firm who has argued 25 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The firm is providing its services pro bono.

The lawsuit names Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly as defendants.

Hours before Murray’s announcement in Seattle Wednesday, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole was one of 12 police chiefs and mayors to meet in Washington, D.C., with Kelly about immigration enforcement and other issues.

Kelly listened carefully to the group and “indicated he really wants to work collaboratively,” O’Toole said.

He also acknowledged a lack of clarity on what makes a jurisdiction a “sanctuary,” O’Toole said.

“I think he’s somebody who seems to be a pragmatist,” she said. “It wasn’t a combative meeting.”

This marks the latest challenge from Washington state to a Trump executive order. Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the administration over Trump’s first executive order for a travel ban from seven majority-Muslim countries.

A federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order to halt the ban. An appeals-court panel upheld the ruling and Trump later issued a more narrowly written ban.

Sessions on Monday took specific aim at jurisdictions, such as King and Snohomish counties, which reject at least some requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold people in jail beyond when they would otherwise be released.

San Francisco’s sanctuary- cities lawsuit is broader in scope than Seattle’s because San Francisco operates a jail.

Because Seattle doesn’t manage a jail, it doesn’t receive requests from ICE to hold people.

It’s possible that King County, which jails people arrested by Seattle police, could join the city’s lawsuit.

Holmes said his office is following lawsuits elsewhere, including San Francisco and Santa Clara County.

Those two have a joint hearing with a judge in California next month, and an initial ruling could set the tone for Seattle’s case. Seattle filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Santa Clara case last month.

Seattle is not seeking a temporary restraining order in its own case, Holmes said.

Murray said he expects other cities to join Seattle’s lawsuit “in the days and weeks ahead.”

In his annual State of the City speech last month, the mayor said Seattle was filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the Trump administration seeking details about the sanctuary cities order. Those requests are still active, Holmes said.