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Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes.

"Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States. These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic." —Executive Order 13768 

On January 25, Trump issued this executive order vowing to yank federal funds from cities that refuse to hand over undocumented immigrants for deportation, and local politicians have remained steadfast in their message that Seattle will remain a sanctuary. Mayor Ed Murray said he is willing to risk "every penny." 

But in determining what the true consequences will be, officials like city attorney Pete Holmes are navigating murky waters, further clouded by unfettered presidential tweets. So they’re looking for answers. As announced at Murray’s State of the City address on Tuesday, Holmes filed a series of Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests with federal agencies about the administration’s immigration order—and will sue to get a response if necessary. Agencies include the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Justice. By law, they have 20 days to acknowledge the request, but a full response with documents is a process that could take months.  

When we spoke, Holmes was about to head into a meeting to analyze the sweeping federal guidelines released Tuesday that seem to signal an aggressive expansion of those targeted for detainment and deportation. Once again, it’s a guessing game as far as what will happen in Seattle. Noting the recent ICE raids across the country, as well as the troubling detainment of DACA recipient Daniel Ramirez Medina, Holmes wants to do his due diligence to find out. There's always something new to decipher. 

How did the decision to file the FOIA requests on Executive Order 13768 come about?

One of the things here is trying to adjust to the new reality of who unexpectedly won the election—there's that emotional component—and then there’s the job. A lawyer’s job is words, and the significance of words. Trying to interpret federal policy from a tweet is a challenge, to say the least. That led to an obvious conclusion for me and other lawyers in discussions that we need to understand what they’re saying. We may learn that they don’t even know what they’re saying. The idea is to approach it the way a lawyer would here and get definitions, terminology, and as much as possible about the background that has led to the formulation of this policy.

What specific answers are you looking for from these agencies? 

What do you mean by “Sanctuary City"? That is how the conversation started immediately after the executive order came out. We were pointing out that that is not a defined legal term; it’s more of a term of art. It even has religious connotations. As you dig into the executive orders, you find there are lots of terms, assumptions, and undefined language that wrote itself in a lot of ways. Our hope is—and there’s always the prospect of litigation here—we’re going to protect Seattle’s rights, and we want to make sure this executive order isn’t going to punish Seattle in an undefined way. We need to understand areas in which, for example, we could expect to see a grant rescinded, or something like that. We want to make them state their terms.

What are your expectations for how they will respond?

Under any other administration, I would have said that we will see a response from a public information officer with clarification, asking what it is we’re looking for, in other words: "We’re working on it, we want to clarify some things." That’s what you would normally expect. Under this administration, I would just be guessing as to whether they are even going to acknowledge it, or tell us to go pound sand. Or do something in between.

Hundreds of these FOIA requests are issued all the time. Is this any different? Why is it important?

I think we first and foremost want to have some sense of our destiny. If there is a collision ahead between Seattle and the federal government, the responsible thing to do is to try to understand exactly what this administration believes to be sanctionable conduct. To try understand what transgressions they think we’re committing by being a welcoming city. That allows city leaders and planners to try to anticipate as much as we can. Perhaps there’s a way we can carry forward our policies that doesn’t offend what the federal government defines as its line in the sand. If we can avoid that confrontation, that’s great. This isn’t just necessarily trying to push back on an executive order, it’s: "Tell us what you mean. We are a law-abiding city. We want to know where we can navigate so that our eyes are wide open to something that we believe you are defining improperly." Let’s figure that out up front.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

We are also monitoring new executive orders and guidance coming out. I’m interested, for example, in the new priorities on deportations that came out [Tuesday] that would impact us greatly. That really concerned me. It used to be only undocumented immigrants with felony convictions that had to worry about mandatory deportation, now it looks like any criminal matters are now included, including some really trivial ones that could really have a direct impact on law enforcement and prosecutors like me. We may very well be following up with another FOIA request pretty soon. Right now, we’re still trying to understand them further. It may be that we try to get guidance about what ICE will do. Will they give a heads up to our chief of police? Usually, law enforcement agencies try to respect each other’s jurisdiction and at least give them a heads up. As soon as I get off this phone call, I’m walking into a criminal division meeting where we are trying to understand the wording released yesterday. On one hand, there is guidance saying that DACA is not being withdrawn, but also saying any undocumented immigrant with a criminal charge is subject to deportation. This is a process at this point, and we are being very diligent. We are trying to watch past the early-morning tweets about official government actions and make sure we really understand.

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