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As the federal government continues to send warning signs to cities with so-called sanctuary status, local officials and activists are standing firm in their support of New Haven’s own sanctuary policies.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of California over its “sanctuary” policies, which it claims interfere with the government’s ability to enforce federal immigration laws. Still, despite the suit, New Haven’s City Hall plans to stand by its decision not to deploy local law enforcement to administer federal immigration laws. And New Haven activists are still urging the city to adopt policies they say would better support the immigrant community.

“People should be able to come to New Haven to study, live, and that’s true without regard for where they used to live,” mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer said. “This is beyond the scope of what a local government can do. It is unrealistic for a municipal government to get involved in enforcement of federal immigration law.”

On Wednesday morning, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Sacramento, California, and warned the state not to assist people who have entered illegally. He said that federal laws supersede state ones and that noncompliance in deportation“rejects” immigration law and creates an open borders system.

“Open borders is a radical, irrational idea that cannot be accepted,” Sessions said Wednesday.

The federal Justice Department is suing California over three laws — including one that the federal government says restricts state and local law enforcement from voluntarily providing information to federal immigration agents.

Grotheer said New Haven has never declared itself a sanctuary city; there is no city ordinance or resolution adopted by the Board of Alders that legally marks the city as such. Instead, the label was given to New Haven by the federal government, due to a 2006 policy that says New Haven police should not ask anyone about their immigration status, according to Grotheer.

“Mayor [Toni Harp] has been saying on the record for many years that Congress is overdue in its overhaul of federal immigration law,” Grotheer said. “With that track record of inaction to suddenly crack down on federal, obsolete law is disrespectful to people who have been living here and working here and paying taxes here, some of them for most of their lives.”

Grotheer said Harp “embraces” the city’s reputation as a welcoming community. He said that since municipal governments are not expected to enforce federal environmental or labor laws, they should not be expected to enforce federal immigration law either.

Community activists also criticized the lawsuit, saying that New Haven must stand by immigrants. John Lugo, an activist at Unidad Latina en Acción –– a New Haven–based grassroots immigrant rights group –– said that while he is concerned by the Justice Department’s recent actions, the suit will not change his organization’s strategy of protesting deportation and pushing for the city to adopt stronger sanctuary policies.

“We were always worried,” Lugo said. “This announcement just means we will be more careful to respond to the [political] climate in the country — which is anti-immigrant.”

Last week, activists rallied in New Haven to protest the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in the New Haven County Courthouse. John Mohan, New England Public Affairs officer for the enforcement agency, said the presence of ICE officials in court ensures laws are enforced in a “safe and efficient manner.”

In addition, activists urged city officials and circulated a petition at the protest — started by members of Unidad Latina en Acción — urging the Board of Alders to take action and protect New Haven residents from deportation. The petition calls for the city government to extend a sanctuary policy to all city employees and officials, since the city’s policy currently applies only to local law enforcement. Activists say this type of policy would protect resident’s personal information, including their sexual orientation and immigration status, and limit the city’s communication and cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change, that as a senator Sessions was known as an anti-immigration legislator and that she is not surprised his Justice Department has cracked down on cities that do not abide by federal laws.

“California is one among hundreds of sanctuary states, locales and cities that refuse to facilitate the efforts of this administration via ICE to destroy communities and rip families apart,” said Matos, a New Haven resident. “New Haven is also included in this list — something we should all be proud of.”

Last month, Harp joined other top city leaders from across the county in boycotting a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C., with President Donald Trump, after learning the Justice Department had sent letters to 23 sanctuary cities, states and counties — not including New Haven — to request better compliance with the federal laws governing immigration enforcement that same week.

Trump singled out Harp in his opening address to attendees, noting her absence from the meeting.

“Toni Harp. Where’s Toni? Toni? Toni? Uh oh, can’t be a sanctuary city person,” Trump said. “My administration is committed to protecting innocent Americans, and the mayors who choose to boycott this event have put the needs of criminal illegal immigrants over law-abiding Americans.”

Harp was first elected mayor in 2013.

Isabel Bysiewicz |