Attorney General William Barr waves after speaking at the National Sheriffs' Association Winter Legislative and Technology Conference in Washington on Monday. A statement from U.S. District Attorney for Maine Halsey B. Frank supported Barr's stance, though added that there were no sanctuary jurisdictions in Maine. Credit: Susan Walsh | AP

PORTLAND, Maine — A pledge by U.S. Attorney General William Barr to punish so-called sanctuary cities was quickly echoed by Maine’s top federal law enforcement official this week, resurfacing concerns about whether liberal-leaning cities such as Portland are being targeted for their work with refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants.

Barr said that the Department of Justice has filed lawsuits against state and local governments in New York, New Jersey, California and Washington described as “sanctuaries,” an informal term for local governments that do not share information about undocumented immigrants with federal officials.

Barr said this week that the department “would be reviewing the practices, policies and laws of other jurisdictions around the country,” as well as “progressive politicians” who obstruct enforcement of federal immigration law. U.S. Attorney for Maine Halsey B. Frank, the top federal law enforcement official in the state, quickly followed suit.

“Jurisdictions with these policies prevent or limit their law enforcement officials from working with their federal law enforcement partners,” Frank said in a statement.

Though informally described as a “welcoming city” for immigrant populations, Portland is not a sanctuary city — no city in Maine is. According to Portland city code, law enforcement personnel are to cooperate with federal officials. It also states that city employees are not to ask the immigration status of individuals who are seeking city services, unless ordered to do so by a court of law.

Why the tough talk, then?

“The U.S. attorney wasn’t discussing any specific jurisdictions in Maine regarding sanctuary policies,” said a spokesperson for Frank. “Halsey wanted to make his views known as the top federal law enforcement official in the state.”

But there is still perception among some that Portland is being targeted for its immigration-friendly policies.

Some point to an increased presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in the area. The agency is tasked with detaining and removing immigrants who violate immigration policies.

Those who work in the city’s social service circles cite a policy change that they suspect was designed to intentionally overwhelm social service networks in liberal cities. They have requested that immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexico border return to the practice of releasing asylum seekers to the city in steady trickles rather than large waves, a frequency that can strain city resources.

Immigration law experts say that it’s not as simple as border officials overwhelming the city by sending people here, but that the documentation that asylum seekers are getting at the border is “not consistent,” which makes immigration law time-consuming and costly to navigate once they arrive.

“The Department of Homeland Security officers aren’t making a decision about where people go,” said Susan Roche of Immigration Legal Advocacy Project. “Asylum seekers are deciding where in the country they want to go.”

Border officials do decide when asylum seekers are released from detention.

The language of Portland’s city code is nearly 18 years old, but the current dispute over Portland’s supposed sanctuary city status began in 2015, when then-Gov. Paul LePage challenged the part of the city code that said city employees are not to ask the immigration status of individuals who are seeking city services, unless ordered to do so by a court or law.

In April of last year, President Donald Trump tweeted that he would consider “placing illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities only.”

Days later, then-Mayor Ethan Strimling responded, saying that Portland would welcome immigrants.

That June, the first wave of asylum seekers arrived in Portland, eventually residing in the Expo Building, without parole documents with which asylum seekers are typically processed.

Nearly nine months after reaching Maine, they are still in the early stages of a multistep process before they are allowed to work. They must wait for their asylum cases to be entered into the national system. But after eight months in Maine that still hasn’t happened.

Once they’re “in the system,” a hearing is scheduled in a federal immigration court.

Once an asylum seeker’s case is heard, federal law states that they must wait an additional 180 days before they can receive a work permit.

Mayor Kate Snyder, who was elected in November, told the BDN on Tuesday that she agrees with immigration law experts that there’s no legal definition of a sanctuary city, and that she stands by the definition written in the city code.

But as Barr’s statements Monday reflect an even more punitive stance against sanctuary cities than former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’, the absence of a proper legal definition could be dangerous. As Barr attempts to expand the definition further, it might risk intimidating immigrant-friendly cities into complying with the Trump administration’s hardline anti-immigration tactics.

Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, believes that to the Trump administration, a “sanctuary city” is any jurisdiction that doesn’t do whatever ICE wants it to, whenever ICE wants it done.

“This ignores two important things,” Beyea said. “First, ICE’s bidding is often at odds with the Constitution. And second, sanctuary cities are safer than their counterparts that comply with ICE’s outlandish demands. This administration has issued any number of vague threats in an effort to bully cities and states into joining their anti-immigrant machine. There is no reason to give in this time.”