The Justice Department warned 29 states, counties and cities Wednesday that they may be asked to pay back more than $17 million in federal grant money unless they’re able to prove their policies don’t violate federal immigration law.
It was the broadest warning yet to so-called sanctuary cities believed to be hampering cooperation between local authorities and federal deportation officers.
Among the jurisdictions put on notice were the states of Illinois, Vermont and Oregon and cities of Washington, D.C., Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“Jurisdictions that adopt so-called ‘sanctuary policies’ also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday.
He urged every jurisdiction to take steps to comply with Section 1373 of Title 8 of the U.S. Code, which prohibits state and local governments from restricting communications with federal immigration authorities “regarding the citizenship or immigration status” of individuals.
The Justice Department had previously warned 10 jurisdictions they may lose out on 2017 money under the Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program unless they followed Section 1373. The department is holding up most 2017 Byrne money while it fights court battles over sanctuary city policies.
Wednesday’s warning goes a step further, looking back to 2016 money ranging from $17,000 awarded to Monterey County, California, to $6.7 million warded to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
The Justice Department sent letters to each of the jurisdictions Wednesday highlighting local policies believed to be problematic and asking local authorities for a response by Dec. 8 that explains whether they would comply with Section 1373 if they received 2017 grants.
Officials from targeted jurisdictions were livid, saying Mr. Sessions is stretching the contours of Section 1373 to try to force localities to hold illegal immigrants for pickup, or to provide extensive information about their releases.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said his city’s laws restrict other types of cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, like using law enforcement resources from carrying out immigration raids.
“The law means what it says, and we follow it. It’s that simple,” he said.
In the nation’s capital, which the mayor proudly bills as a sanctuary city, law enforcement leaders protested the assertion that they were not compliant with federal immigration laws.
“DOJ’s threat to cut off funding for important public safety programs is counterproductive and wrong-headed. Our city is safer when all our residents trust local law enforcement,” said D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, pledging to defend local residents “however necessary.”
Their arguments likely got a boost Wednesday when a federal judge in Pennsylvania issued an injunction blocking the attorney general’s efforts to withhold 2017 federal public safety grants from Philadelphia over its compliance with Section 1373.
U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson ruled that Philadelphia, which only complies with some of the federal government’s requests, is striking the right balance between trying to preserve a working relationship with immigrant communities while also turning over aliens with serious criminal records.
“In this case, given Philadelphia’s unique approach to meshing the legitimate needs of the federal government to remove criminal aliens with the City’s promotion of health and safety, there is no conflict of any significance,” the judge wrote.
A Justice Department spokesman said officials are reviewing the Philadelphia ruling to determine what steps to take next.
“In Philadelphia, 2017 homicides have already eclipsed 2016’s numbers, and so-called ‘sanctuary policies’ further undermine public safety and law enforcement,” spokesman Devin O’Malley said.
The ruling does not mean the city will receive the $1.6 million grant immediately, however, as a lawsuit brought by Chicago is still pending and has held up distribution of $257 million in Byrne grants to nearly 1,000 state and local agencies this year.
The judge overseeing the Chicago case ruled that the department could not enforce two of the three conditions it sought to impose on the Byrne grants demanding access to jails, and notice before targeted immigrants were being released.
But he did allow the Section 1373 requirement to take effect.
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