Sessions: ‘Sanctuary Cities’ Must Comply or Be Denied DOJ Grants

Attorney General Jeff Sessions pauses while speaking to members of the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 27, 2017.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions pauses while speaking to members of the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 27, 2017. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

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Does an Obama-era policy really give the agency leeway to defund jurisdictions still refusing to enforce immigration law?

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will require state and local governments applying for Office of Justice Programs grants to first certify compliance with immigration enforcement, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Monday.

Speaking at the White House daily briefing, Sessions cited an Obama-era memorandum—issued by Inspector General Michael Horowitz in May and suggesting compliance with 8 U.S. Code Section 1373 be made a condition of Department of Justice grants—as the basis for the new policy toward “sanctuary cities.”

Immigration law experts have been quick to point out that Section 1373 simply bars states and localities from stopping their employees from communicating with federal immigration enforcement, rather than compelling jurisdictions to enforce immigration law.

“Fundamentally, we intend to use all the lawful authority we have to make sure our state and local officials, who are so important to law enforcement, are in sync with the federal government,” Sessions said.

Jurisdictions that refuse to hold felons under federal detainer requests continue to stymie immigration enforcement, the attorney general said, and a failure to remedy violations could result in the withholding, termination and banning of future DOJ grants. DOJ will also seek to “claw back” federal funds from willful violators, and new grants the administration creates across agencies could be subject to compliance certification.

Sessions estimated $4.1 billion in grants will be awarded by DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services this year.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors responded by pointing out several key DOJ programs already require compliance with Section 1373.

“Today U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions accused some states and cities of adopting ‘policies designed to frustrate the enforcement of our immigration laws,’” said USCM CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran in his rebuttal. “This statement is incorrect, unfortunate, and ignores both the Constitution and policing practices that have made our cities safer.”

Maryland lawmakers are currently considering sanctuary state legislation, a bill Sessions implored them not to pass Monday. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan opposes the bill, calling efforts to limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement “absurd.”

Sessions further appealed to the residents of major sanctuary cities to communicate their distaste for such policies to their elected officials. In a new twist on an old argument, he added undocumented criminals put other immigrants, in particular, in danger.

“The American people are not happy with these results. They know that when cities and states refuse to help enforce immigration laws our nation is less safe,” Sessions said. “Failure to deport aliens who are convicted of criminal offenses puts whole communities at risk, especially immigrant communities in the very sanctuary jurisdictions that seek to protect the perpetrators.”

The 2015 shooting death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle on the San Francisco waterfront, blamed on undocumented immigrant Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, has long been a Republican talking point, and Sessions mentioned it again Monday. Sanchez had already been deported five times and had seven felony convictions, when he was released by local authorities in San Francisco, a sanctuary city, 11 weeks before the shooting—despite a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee tweeted shortly after Sessions made his remarks.

Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler responded to Sessions comments, which were in line with what Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is trying to do to the sanctuary city at the state level in terms of withholding funds.

"At most, we're not voluntarily complying with a voluntary program," Adler told KUT in Austin.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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