DOJ suggests Lawrence may be violating an immigration information-sharing law

The US Department of Justice has suggested that a Lawrence policy may violate a federal statute that requires information-sharing related to immigration enforcement, which would put the city at-risk of not receiving public safety grant funding.

The department sent letters Wednesday to 29 jurisdictions, stating that each must comply with the statute to be eligible for Byrne JAG grant money.

The funds can be used to bolster law enforcement, drug treatment, and crime victim and witness programs, among other purposes.

In fiscal 2016, Lawrence received about $72,000 in Byrne JAG funds, according to Justice Department spokesman. The city also applied for fiscal 2017 funding.


In a letter to Lawrence Police Chief James Fitzpatrick, acting assistant attorney general Alan Hanson said federal officials were concerned about a city ordinance that appears to prohibit “respond[ing] to any ICE notification request seeking information about an individual’s incarceration status, length of detention, home address, work address, personal information, hearing information, or pending release.”

Hanson requested clarification regarding the city ordinance in his letter.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said in a statement Wednesday that the city complies with the federal statute.

“I am not concerned that this letter puts Lawrence in any jeopardy,” he said in the statement.

The federal statute cited in the letter deals with the flow of certain information to and from immigration authorities. Jurisdictions that were found to have possibly violated that statute have until Dec. 8 to “demonstrate that the interpretation and application of their laws, policies, or practices comply,” according to the letter.

Rivera indicated that Lawrence will respond by that deadline.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a statement released Wednesday, urged the 19 jurisdictions to “reconsider their policies that undermine the safety of their residents.”

“Jurisdictions that adopt so-called ‘sanctuary policies’ also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law,” he said.


Local immigration advocates found the letter to be misguided and wrong.

Sarang Sekhavat, the federal policy director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the letter was an example of “grandstanding and bullying.”

“This administration doesn’t seem to have any understanding of what the law means,” he said.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director for the Boston-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said the federal government “should not interfere or sabotage the lawful exercise of local and state rights.”

Espinoza-Madrigal said he was concerned about the administration’s “unconstitutional abuse of power.”

“To defund cities like Lawrence, specifically through the Byrne JAG grants, is deeply harmful for law enforcement efforts that keep our communities safe,” he said.

Letters were also sent to the state of Vermont and the municipality of Burlington, Vermont, among others.

It was unclear why Lawrence was the only Massachusetts community listed in the letter; other cities in the state, such as Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities for immigrants. In a series of e-mails Wednesday night, a Justice Department spokesman did not provide an answer to that question.

In July, the state’s highest court ruled that local law enforcement officials cannot hold a person who is wanted solely for immigration violations, providing a legal basis for sanctuary cities to refuse to cooperate with federal officials.


In February, Lawrence and Chelsea filed a federal lawsuit that challenged a executive order from President Trump that looked to strip funding for so-called sanctuary cities.

Milton Valencia of Globe staff contributed to this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.