Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday threatened to strip some “sanctuary cities” of coveted Justice Department grants for state and local law enforcement, saying those places that did not comply with a particular federal law on immigration would not be eligible for money.
“I urge our nation’s states and cities to consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to enforce our immigration laws, and to rethink these policies,” Sessions said from the White House. “Such policies make their cities and states less safe, and put them at risk of losing valuable federal dollars.”
Sessions’s announcement follows President Trump’s executive order in January that gave the attorney general the authority to sanction any city that doesn’t readily hand over undocumented immigrants for deportation.
This effort to punish cities where local leaders refuse to hand over undocumented immigrants for deportation is the latest effort by the Trump administration to crack down on illegal immigration.
Sessions said the Justice Department will take steps to “claw back any funds awarded to a jurisdiction” that violates federal law. The Justice Department will award more than $4.1 billion in grants to state and local jurisdictions this fiscal year.
Sessions said jurisdictions would not be eligible for grant money if they could not certify compliance with a law against blocking the sharing of information about a person’s immigration status with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
It is unclear to which jurisdictions that might apply. Some cities that prevent their employees from disclosing a person’s immigration information have exceptions for situations when it is required by law — although it is questionable as to whether those exceptions would satisfy Sessions. And merely refusing to honor a detainer request would not put a “sanctuary city” in violation of the law, as honoring such requests is not required under the statute cited by Sessions.
The attorney general said the Department of Homeland Security recently issued a report showing that in one week, there were more than 200 instances of jurisdictions that did not honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests with respect to people charged or convicted of a serious crime.
“The charges and convictions against these aliens include drug trafficking, hit and run, rape, sex offenses against a child and even murder,” Sessions said. “Such policies cannot continue. They make our nation less safe by putting dangerous criminals back on our streets.”
Sessions noted that Maryland is considering a law that would make it a “sanctuary state,” but that the governor is opposed.
“That would be such a mistake,” Sessions said. “I would plead with the state of Maryland. It is not good policy.”
Across the country Monday, several critics of Trump’s sanctuary-city crackdown said they had no plans to reverse their policies and accused Trump of wrongly portraying undocumented immigrants as criminals when studies show their communities tend to be safer.
California State Senate president pro tempore Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), the sponsor of a bill that would make California a sanctuary state, called Sessions’s crackdown “nothing short of blackmail.”
“Instead of making us safer, the Trump administration is spreading fear and promoting race-based scapegoating,” he said in the statement. “Their gun-to-the-head method to force resistant cities and counties to participate in Trump’s inhumane and counterproductive mass-deportation is unconstitutional and will fail.”
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said the Trump administration’s attacks on sanctuary cities “promote unlawful profiling and xenophobia.”
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeks to create a police state in which local and state law enforcement are acting at the behest of the federal government to round up immigrants in communities across the country,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the committee.
The National Immigration Law Center noted the timing of Sessions’s announcement, soon after Trump’s defeat on health care.
“In typical fashion, they are trying to manipulate the news cycle to distract and divert attention elsewhere,” Kamal Essaheb, director of policy and advocacy with the National Immigration Law Center, said in a statement.
Some city and county officials complained that the Trump administration is not carefully examining sanctuary policies, which vary.
In Montgomery County, for instance, a spokesman said the county cooperates with federal immigration officials and protested when Homeland Security said they did not.
“We feel that we’re in compliance with the laws that we need to be in compliance with,” said spokesman Patrick Lacefield.
In Massachusetts, the mayor of Somerville, Joseph Curtatone, said his city turns over those with serious criminal records and people accused of dangerous crimes to immigration officials.
Curtatone said Trump’s plans would endanger all residents by withholding public-safety money that in the past has funded programs such as self-defense classes to prevent rape.
“We’re not harboring any criminals,” Curtatone said. “It’s dangerous when you have those in authority and power who are not fully informed with the facts making such statements.”
Matt Zapotosky and John Wagner contributed to this report.