An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in 2011, via Homeland Security

Baltimore’s top prosecutor has backed a federal lawsuit against Donald Trump’s Justice Department that says the agency is illegally holding crime-fighting grant money over cities’ heads if they don’t enforce federal immigration law.

State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced yesterday that she’d filed an amicus brief supporting the challenge in the U.S. District Court of Northern Illinois. Her decision to join stems from a move by the U.S. Justice to exclude Baltimore, a city with one of the highest violent crime rates in the country, from a federally funded pilot program due to the city’s immigration policies.

“In joining this action, I affirm the principle that Baltimore is a ‘welcoming city,’ and it would be counterproductive to our efforts to improve public safety if we are distracted by the implementation of this flawed policy of the Trump administration,” Mosby said in a statement.

A Justice Department official sent a letter in August to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, suggesting Baltimore would be added to the crime-fighting grant list if Davis agreed to some demands – among them, that officers would allow federal immigration agents into jails to detain undocumented inmates, or hold them for up to two days after their scheduled release so agents could come take them away. Baltimore was one of four cities whose policies commissioners received such letters.

Charm City is among hundreds of jurisdictions offering “sanctuary” policies to immigrants, employing limited cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who seek to deport undocumented residents. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement accompanying the August letter that his department is “asking ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions to stop making their jobs harder.”

Davis responded with defiance and bewilderment. He noted the state, rather than Baltimore City government, has operated the city jail since 1991, and said complying with those demands would be “a step in the wrong direction” because it could endanger community trust.

The City of Chicago, another violence-prone city left off the DOJ’s list of recipient cities in June, sued the Justice Department over its demands. The city in the past has received grant money from the same pool now being leveraged by the Trump administration. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel equated the move to blackmail.

Attorneys are arguing the policy amounts to coercion. The lawsuit says it could “dangerously impact local communities by requiring jurisdictions to prioritize civil immigration enforcement over public safety and by potentially stripping jurisdictions of funding for important public safety and community initiatives.”

The suit calls for the federal court to stop the DOJ from withholding the money based on localities’ immigration policies. Police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors from 17 jurisdictions, including Baltimore, have now filed briefs in support. Others include Atlanta, Salt Lake County in Utah, Seattle, multiple jurisdictions in New York City, and Corpus Christ, Texas.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...