A group of mayors who met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tuesday said the threat to strip federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities” is unlikely to become reality since jurisdictions across the country appear to be following the law.
The mayors said Sessions indicated at the meeting that he considered “sanctuary jurisdictions” only those in violation of a vague federal statute requiring places not to block communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They said their cities comply with the law, and they were unaware of any places that didn’t.
“If that’s the definition of sanctuary city,” said Providence, R.I., Mayor Jorge Elorza, “then I don’t think there are any sanctuary cities in the United States of America.”
The meeting comes just days after Sessions sent letters demanding that nine jurisdictions produce proof that they are communicating with federal authorities about undocumented immigrants or risk losing grant funding. The threat was greeted with outrage, particularly because the Justice Department accompanied it with a statement declaring many of the places were “crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime.” The department singled out New York City in particular as being “soft on crime.” Sessions said Friday one jurisdiction already had formally replied.
The jurisdictions have said publicly they believe they are complying with federal law. And the local officials who met with Sessions Tuesday — including the mayor of New Orleans, whose city was among those asked to certify its compliance with federal law — said the attorney general’s comments offered some measure of reassurance.
Sessions said in a statement that he was “pleased that the mayors who met with us today assured us they want to be in compliance with the law.” He said the “vast majority of state and local jurisdictions are in compliance and want to work with federal law enforcement to keep their communities safe,” though following the particular law on communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement was “the minimum the American people should expect.”
“We want all jurisdictions to enthusiastically support the laws of the United States that require the removal of criminal aliens, as many jurisdictions already do,” Sessions said.
After the meeting, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked President Trump’s order threatening to take federal funds from sanctuary cities, though he said Sessions was within his right to enforce existing grant conditions — as his letters sought to do.
But the judge restricted federal authorities from taking any steps beyond that — such as putting new conditions on money, or bullying locals into holding possible illegal immigrations for their federal counterparts — even though the Justice Department had argued it did not intend to.
There is no singular definition of a “sanctuary jurisdiction,” and the judge noted even the president’s order on the topic was ambiguous. Cities with police departments that don’t ask people they encounter about immigration status, for example, could earn the label. So, too, could police departments that refuse to hold suspected illegal immigrants charged with other crimes when Immigration and Customs enforcement asks them to.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the group asked Sessions Tuesday: “Give us clarity about what you think a sanctuary city is, which we don’t have now.” He and others said that while the answer was still somewhat vague, Justice Department officials indicated it was only those cities that do not comply with a federal law that bars places from blocking information sharing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said Justice Department officials said some practices that commonly earn cities the “sanctuary” label — such as telling police officers not to inquire about immigration status — would not violate the law and not jeopardize federal funding.
He said Montgomery County does just that, and has found it an effective way to fight crime.
Manger said Sessions seems to be improperly linking increases in homicides in some places to gang crime and immigration, when gangs are only responsible for a portion of the increase, and many are more are likely traceable to gangs whose members are U.S. citizens.
“They’re not the driver in the increase in homicides around this country,” Manger said. “The driver is mental illness, it’s addiction, it’s domestic, it’s drug related.”
A sticking point in the talks with U.S. officials, Manger said, was to what extent cities have to cooperate when it comes to holding suspected illegal immigrants based on a request from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As it stands now, all those arrested for local crimes have their fingerprints run through the FBI database. Whether the locals like it or not, the information is then sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who often ask for the people to be held.
Not honoring a detainer request, the mayors said, would not seem to be a violation of federal law. And for local authorities, officials said, honoring them can present legal problems.
“The question then gets to be constitutionally how long we can hold that individual without a warrant,” Landrieu said.
The federal judge later said the president’s executive order could not force jurisdictions to hold suspected illegal immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A Justice Department inspector general report during the Obama administration found some places with policies that it said might violate the law; the Justice Department has said that report helped it determine which cities to target to certify their compliance. Some, though, have actually modified their policies since the report, including New Orleans.