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Jeff Sessions has been angling for a greater role in immigration enforcement for his Department of Justice, and last Friday he fired another salvo, threatening nine jurisdictions with decreased federal funding over their “sanctuary city” policies.
Sessions sent letters to the state of California; the cities of Chicago, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia; and the counties of Clark County (NV), Cook County (IL), Miami-Dade County (FL), and Milwaukee County (WI). Sessions’ letters demanded that the jurisdictions comply with a federal law that requires them to share the immigration status of people in their custody, or else lose part of a $265 million grant to help police, prosecutors, judges, and jailers.
Besides Sessions’ somewhat deranged obsession with immigrants and his fixation with American cities that are home to millions of immigrants, there are a few things going on here.
The threat in Sessions’ letter is, frankly, stupid, and is either some empty saber rattling or a complete display of ignorance as to how immigration policy works. What the Administration wants jurisdictions to do, according to the letter, is to be in compliance with a 1996 statute that says a jurisdiction cannot prevent an official from talking to the feds about the immigration status of an individual. Almost every city and county in the country has been and continues to be in compliance with this requirement — including those that the Administration considers “sanctuary cities.” That part has never even been a question — yet Sessions for some reason saw fit to put jurisdictions on notice over it.
Sessions and Trump’s actual problem with sanctuary cities, apparently not referenced in Sessions’ letter, involves the fact that many jurisdictions release individuals who are undocumented immigrants but who have not committed any crimes, rather than holding them until ICE agents can pick them up. But here, too, the Administration is in the wrong: multiple court rulings have said that it’s unconstitutional for jurisdictions to hold immigrants if they haven’t committed a crime, meaning what Trump and Sessions want these cities and counties to do is actually illegal. And no court has held that the Department of Justice can withhold funds from cities over this reason.
The fact that Sessions is wrong about so-called “sanctuary cities”, however, does not mean that his threat isn’t dangerous. Cities, counties, and their local law enforcement are best off when immigrant communities trust them — and Sessions is trying to damage that relationship. That’s why local leaders and law enforcement officials from around the country are up in arms about Sessions’ letter. Sessions is sending the message that local police should focus more on immigration violations than on stopping actual crime, which could make immigrants less likely to come forward, give tips, be witnesses, and report crimes. That makes everyone worse off.
Leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Trump, made it clear that they don’t support any Administration policies that take money away from cities, restrict federal funding for the police, or make policing communities harder. Jim Pasco, their Executive Director, said the Administration could endanger public safety if it follows through with threats against sanctuary cities. Chuck Canterbury, FOP’s president, said that “we cannot automatically punish those whose sworn duty is to carry out policy, which may compromise the safety of the public.”
The International Association of Chiefs of Police agreed, saying:
Penalizing communities by withholding assistance funding to law enforcement agencies and other critical programs is counter-productive to our shared mission of reducing violent crime and keeping our communities safe.
Individual sheriffs and law enforcement officials have written op-eds on how the Administration’s opposition to sanctuary cities is incoherent and problematic, and how their jurisdictions are following exactly what the law states.
New York City officials were particularly outraged, as Sessions’ remarks called the city “soft on crime”, and claimed that many sanctuary cities are “crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime” — which is not true. (New York is the safest big city in America). New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Sessions’ statements were “outrageous” and “unacceptable”:
It’s absurd on its face and ignores a quarter centurry of progress in this city in bringing down crime. We did not become the safest big city in America by being ‘soft on crime.’ I’ve never met a member of NYPD who is soft on crime.
Finally, it should be noted that Miami-Dade County, Florida, has for months been running scared of its former status as a sanctuary city, despite its high immigrant population and pro-immigrant identity. In February, Miami-Dade — led by Mayor Carlos Gimenez — reversed its pro-immigrant policy and said that it would start holding undocumented immigrants for ICE, out of fear of losing federal funding, and despite a popular outrage over the reversal.
Yup. Instead of leaning into protections for its immigrant communities, standing strong about the fact that the law is on the side of immigrants, citing research that immigrant-friendly policies make cities safer, and calling out the Trump Administration for its repeated lack of understanding of the facts — Miami-Dade capitulated, and since then has been trying to prove that it’s toeing Trump’s line.
Except that it received one of Sessions’ letters anyway. According to USA Today, the county sounds desperate in its hope that it can get off Trump’s shit list. As spokesman Michael Hernandez said.
We’re going to chalk (the letter) up to it just being part of the process. The Department of Justice and members of Congress are well aware of Miami-Dade County’s policy reversal. We’re very confident that once we present the department with the information it’s seeking, we will no longer be considered a sanctuary jurisdiction.