Attorney General Sessions escalates threats against sanctuary cities

Leaders of so-called sanctuary cities across the US are vowing to intensify their fight against President Trump's promised crackdown.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a March 2 news conference at the Justice Department in Washington.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions ramped up threats to so-called sanctuary cities Monday, saying the government would take "all lawful steps to claw-back" federal funding awarded to cities that do not fully comply with federal immigration enforcement.

President Trump signed an executive order that intends to deny funding to cities that refuse to share immigration status information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and to detain undocumented immigrants who commit nonviolent crimes. On Monday, Mr. Sessions took that harsh stance a step further, suggesting that cities could not only lose out on future funds, but that the federal government may require them to pay back grants that have already been rewarded.  

"I urge the nation's states and cities to carefully consider the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to enforce our immigration laws," he said, speaking at a press briefing.

The funding threats to sanctuary cities are not entirely new. Last year, former President Barack Obama’s administration said cities which failed to comply with federal immigration law put themselves at risk of losing funding.

Many have raised concerns that sanctuary city protections can allow dangerous criminals to avoid deportation efforts, putting the public at risk.

But local law enforcement in cities around the nation say that refusing to hold nonviolent, minor offenders until immigration agents arrive to detain them helps to bolster a healthy relationship between police and minority communities, which in turn results in a higher rate of reporting crimes and makes it easier to speak with witnesses who do not have legal documentation.

If the Trump administration makes good on its promise, sanctuary cities stand to lose out on a shot at some $4.1 billion in federal funding that goes to programs such as victim services, body camera initiatives for police departments, and police involvement in community events.

Dozens of US cities, including Philadelphia; Austin, Texas; New York City; and Los Angeles as well as many other small cities and towns, consider themselves sanctuary cities. 

But Sessions and the Justice Department can’t move in on the cities just yet. As per Mr. Trump’s executive order, the Homeland Security Department (DHS) will have to determine what constitutes a sanctuary city before restricting funding. For now, the classification does not have a legal definition. 

The DHS has been tracking such cities weekly, and has added 120 cities and counties that it deems uncooperative to a list that has yet to be finalized.

Following Sessions’s comments Monday, many stood up to vouch for the protections, saying the threats would not scare them into compliance with measures they believe endanger their communities.

“L.A.’s values are not for sale," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. "Slashing funds for first responders, for our port and airport, for counterterrorism, crime-fighting and community-building serves no one."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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