Milwaukee County officials dig in heels as Justice Dept. continues review of sanctuary status

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee County officials are digging in their heels after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the county remained under the microscope for lax immigration enforcement.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

County Executive Chris Abele said Wednesday, August 30th that he'd support a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice if it denies the county $937,000 in federal public safety grants. Abele and other county officials have continuously asserted that the county is breaking no laws.

Sessions said Tuesday that he was willing to give Milwaukee County and several other municipalities facing scrutiny a "fair shake" -- but only if they cooperated with his agency's demands.

"We want Milwaukee County and every county and every city in America to cooperate, positively, not to come up with legal gimmicks to try to say 'I am cooperating,' when I'm not," Sessions said.

AG Jeff Sessions

Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors

At issue are two resolutions passed by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors in 2012 and 2017 that try to limit county cooperation with federal immigration agents.

The resolutions don't carry the weight of the law, and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has said that he does cooperate with federal agents. In addition, Clarke has sought access to the 287(g) program, which would more closely align his agency with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Abele said the board should not rescind its two resolutions to resolve the dispute.

"If we said, 'We know that's not true, but we're just going to roll over anyway,' that's the wrong message to send," Abele said.

This spring, the Justice Department asked 10 municipalities and agencies to submit information by June 30th to show they were in compliance with federal immigration laws.

Milwaukee County lawyers complied with the demand with a June 28th letter that noted Clarke's position and said the county was complying with federal immigration enforcement requests.

"Even the specter of a draconian or otherwise unpredictable cut in grant funding will create budgetary chaos for the County,"  wrote Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun.

The Justice Department has since let two counties off the hook. Officials in Miami-Dade County, Florida decided to change their immigration enforcement policies to comply with federal demands, while DOJ determined that Clark County, Nevada was not a sanctuary municipality after all. Clark County's biggest city is Las Vegas.

Milwaukee County officials are not rolling over to the demands. In July, the county board voted 12-4 to set aside $50,000 to sue the Justice Department over the dispute.

Abele did not sign the legislation, according to online records. But the county executive said Wednesday that he would support a lawsuit if necessary.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke

Through a spokeswoman, Clarke said he had no comment about the matter. Abele and county board supervisors who oppose Clarke's request said his actions help make their point to the Justice Department.

"We are actually doing and communicating what it is ICE wants us to do," said Peggy West, a Milwaukee County supervisor who supported the resolutions seeking to limit cooperation with federal agents.