Crime & Justice

Attorney general orders crackdown on 'sanctuary cities,' threatens funding

Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks during the daily White House press briefing on Monday.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks during the daily White House press briefing on Monday.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Justice Department is following through on an executive order to withhold as much as $4.1 billion in federal grants from so-called "sanctuary cities," such as Los Angeles, generally defined as places where local law enforcement limit their cooperation with federal authorities on immigration enforcement.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions' appearance at the daily White House briefing is a signal that President Trump wants to move on to one of the issues he's most comfortable talking about — illegal immigration — and to shift the conversation away from health care, after his failure last week to get the GOP alternative to replace and repeal the Affordable Care Act through Congress.

While there is not a set definition of a "sanctuary" state or city, the Justice Department gives the example of states or cities refusing immigration agents' requests to hold immigrants who came to the country illegally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has identified 118 such jurisdictions.

"Such policies cannot continue," Sessions said in Monday's briefing. "They make our nation less safe by putting dangerous criminals back on our streets."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on sanctuary cities

Sessions said that in order to receive federal funds, state and local jurisdictions must certify they are complying with federal immigration laws. In addition, Sessions said that the Justice Department will take steps to "claw back" grants already awarded to noncompliant cities as well.

The announcement is in line with a January executive order that Trump signed shortly after taking office that directed the attorney general and the Homeland Security secretary to withhold such federal funds.

Several major cities could be affected by the Justice Department's threat, including Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. After Trump's elections, mayors in those cities reaffirmed their status as sanctuary cities. After president's executive order on the issue, San Francisco sued the Trump administration over the orders, saying they violated the city's sovereignty under the 10th Amendment.

In California, reaction to Sessions’ announcement was predictably divided.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a statement condemning the federal action as punitive and counterproductive. "Slashing funds for first responders, for our port and airport, for counterterrorism, crime-fighting and community-building serves no one — not this city, not the federal government, not the American people."

Last week, Garcetti signed an order expanding policies that limit the Los Angeles Police Department's cooperation with immigration agents in holding individuals for possible deportation. The expanded order prohibits city employees, including fire department personnel and port police, from assisting in immigration enforcement.

John Berry of Redlands, a state coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, praised the Trump administration Monday for announcing action against sanctuary cities.

“I hope they triple down and quadruple down on these idiot mayors,” Berry said. “I hope these idiot mayors make up the difference out of their own pockets.”

He called for all federal funding to be withdrawn from noncompliant cities.

“I don’t understand how these guys (mayors) flout the law with such flagrancy,” Berry said. “They have a moral obligation to follow the law whether they like it or not."

Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek said the attorney general's funding threat did nothing to change his city's course on dealing with people in the country illegally. Tornek said the practice for years has been to leave immigration enforcement to federal agents. 

"The last thing we want to do is to create a situation where people are afraid to report the crime or serve as witnesses to crimes because they're fearful of getting enmeshed in some immigration action," Tornek said. 

The mayor said he did not like using the term "sanctuary city" himself because he thought it offered false hope. "The city isn’t offering that level of protection to undocumented people," Tornek said. 

Still, Pasadena could be perceived as a sanctuary city by the federal government, he acknowledged. Despite that, he is not worried about the loss of Department of Justice funds. He noted it is a small percentage of the roughly $35 million the city receives from the federal government. 

The city of Santa Ana has gone further and voted to call itself a sanctuary city in late December. 

Council member Sal Tinajero said the declaration came as a reaction to the Trump presidency and was intended to signal that the city would protect its immigrants, whether legally here or not. 

Tinajero said the city would not now back down because of Session's announcement on federal funding. "This was just a way for him to traumatize our community and destabilize us here and bully us into changing course," he said. 

If the federal government did indeed withhold federal funds, the city would likely sue, he said: "I can assure you we wouldn't be the only city."

State Senate President Kevin de León called Sessions' announcement "nothing short of blackmail." In a statement on his Senate website, the lawmaker said the Trump administration is "spreading fear and promoting race-based scapegoating."

"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,” he stated. 

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued a press release stating that he plans to continue to work with federal officials for the public good and safety, then added: "But it's a low blow to our brave men and women in uniform to threaten to withhold public safety funding that they have earned unless Donald Trump gets his way on immigration."

Becerra said his office would fight "against unconstitutional overreach by our federal government."

Sessions on Monday pointed to crimes allegedly perpetrated by immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as a prime reason to enforce immigration policies, and argued that cities who fail to do so are putting their citizens at risk.

"DUIs, assaults, burglaries, drug crimes, gang crimes, rapes, crimes against children and murders," the attorney general said. "Countless Americans would be alive today — and countless loved ones would not be grieving today — if the policies of these sanctuary jurisdictions were ended."

As the New York Times has reported, a number of studies "have concluded that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. And experts say the available evidence does not support the idea that undocumented immigrants commit a disproportionate share of crime."

Trump has campaigned with families whose loved ones were victims of crimes by immigrants, featuring speakers at the Republican National Convention and inviting several to his joint address to Congress last month.

Opponents of such crackdowns on sanctuary cities say the order undermines the ability of localities to build trust with its citizens and protect them appropriately.

"Pressuring local law enforcement to take on immigration responsibilities undercuts the very oath they take to 'serve and protect' the entirety of their community," Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told NPR after Trump's January executive order. "Smart law enforcement is built on intelligence gathering and trust, which are dramatically undermined once the cop on the corner is asking victims of crime about their immigration status."

This story has been updated.

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