DOJ Cracks Down On Sanctuary Cities: No Help For ICE Means No Federal Grants

Updated July 26 -- The Justice Department escalated its promised crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities, saying it will no longer award coveted grant money to cities unless they give federal immigration authorities access to jails and provide advance notice when someone in the country illegally is about to be released.

Under old rules, cities seeking grant money needed only to show they were not preventing local law enforcement from communicating with federal authorities about the immigration status of people they have detained.

The announcement came as questions swirled about Attorney General Jeff Sessions' future as the nation's top law enforcement officer following days of blistering criticism from President Donald Trump over his performance. Sessions and Trump had bonded during the campaign, largely over their hardline views on illegal immigration. And Trump's campaign promises included slashing federal grants for cities that refuse to comply with federal efforts to detain and deport those living in the country illegally.

"So-called 'sanctuary' policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes," Sessions said in a statement. "These policies also encourage illegal immigration and even human trafficking by perpetuating the lie that in certain cities, illegal aliens can live outside the law. ... We must encourage these 'sanctuary' jurisdictions to change their policies and partner with federal law enforcement to remove criminals."

Denver officials say the city is currently in compliance with that policy . ICE agents are allowed to do interviews in the city jail and federal officials are notified when some immigrant inmates are being released. But a proposed policy would change that. City councilman Paul Lopez says he wants to restrict the interactions city employees have with immigration enforcers to a bare minimum. The proposal will be voted on later this summer. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock says the proposal could threaten access to law enforcement grants.

The conditions apply to one of the Justice Department's most popular grant programs, which provides police departments money to buy everything from bulletproof vests to body cameras. The requirements will apply to cities seeking grants starting in September.

Sessions for months had been warning jurisdictions they could lose money, just for having rules that limit communication among local police and immigration officials. The new conditions say officials must let Department of Homeland Security employees have access to local jails in order to meet with immigrants and must give them 48 hours' notice before releasing an immigrant wanted by immigration authorities from their custody.

"This is what the American people should be able to expect from their cities and states," Sessions said. "And these long overdue requirements will help us take down MS-13 and other violent transnational gangs, and make our country safer."

Some cities continued to resist the pressure.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's office said it would fight to keep the grant funds, calling them key to keeping neighborhoods safe from gangs and crime.

"Mayor Garcetti believes that cities have a right to create sensible policies that keep our neighborhoods safe and protect our residents," the mayor's spokesman, Alex Comisar, said in an email to The Associated Press.

A judge in April blocked Trump's executive order aimed at withholding funding from sanctuary cities, saying the president could not set new conditions on spending approved by Congress. But the Justice Department said it still could condition some of its grants to force cities to cooperate with immigration authorities.

Jorge Baron, executive director of the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said he expected states or local jurisdictions to challenge the restrictions under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves powers to the states that are not specifically delegated to the federal government.

But beyond that, he argued, it's simply a bad idea to have local authorities enforcing immigration law: "Imagine your house is getting broken into and an undocumented person walks by and sees it. That undocumented person isn't going to call 911 if they've heard the local police or the sheriff is involved in immigration enforcement."

The Supreme Court has held that there must be a reasonable relationship between the grant condition and the purpose of the money being withheld, said Mary Fan, a University of Washington law professor. The grant program in question is the main source of federal criminal justice funding to the states and local jurisdictions. Any states or cities that challenge the new requirements are likely to argue that enforcement of immigration laws — which generally fall under civil, not criminal, statutes — is not reasonably related to criminal justice funding, she said.

"The overarching purpose of the grants is to prevent and control crime," Fan said. "That's a very broad rationale, and it gives the Trump administration more room to argue that the condition is reasonably related to the purpose of the money. The administration has made clear that in its view, undocumented immigration is associated with crime."

CPR's Allison Sherry contributed to this report.