Sanctuary Cities Face Aid Cuts as Justice Dept. Tightens Screws

 nytimes.com  4/21/2017 7:07:07 PM   Charlie Savage
Attorney General Jeff Sessions outside the White House on Monday. Al Drago/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration escalated its confrontation with so-called sanctuary cities that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities, threatening them anew Friday with the loss of grant money if they do not remove certain barriers.

The Justice Department sent letters to officials in New York City, Philadelphia, California and other places that were singled out last year by the agency’s inspector general for regulations that interfere with the ability of police or sheriffs to communicate with federal immigration authorities about the status of prisoners in their custody.

“Many of these jurisdictions are also crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime,” the Justice Department said in a news release accompanying the letters.

The agency cited the rising murder rate in Chicago and cast blame for gang murders in New York on what it labeled a “soft on crime” stance. It also complained that after the recent arrests of 11 members of the MS-13 Salvadoran street gang, the deputy police chief of Santa Cruz, Calif., had stressed that the raid was unrelated to immigration instead of “warning other MS-13 members that they would be next.”

President Trump ran on a platform of cracking down on illegal immigration and issued an executive order during his first week in office aimed at starting that process. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that recipients of federal law enforcement grants were required to comply with a 1996 law that bars the local authorities from forcing officials to withhold information from federal immigration authorities about people’s immigration status.

The recipients of the letters were warned that as a condition of receiving 2016 grants, they must certify by June 30 that they are in compliance with the law. That enforced a hard deadline on a policy first put in place under the Obama administration, which announced the policy last July but gave cities that were not in compliance time to adjust.

After Mr. Sessions’ remarks last month, several municipal leaders vowed defiance; Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City said that he would fight in court any attempt to strip funding from the city. In 2014, the city enacted a law that barred the Correction Department from telling Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials about an inmate’s release date, incarceration status or coming court dates unless the inmate was the subject of a detainer request supported by a judicial warrant.

In a conference call with reporters on Friday, Nisha Agarwal, the commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in New York, said the city received a similar letter last year and was prepared to respond by the June 30 deadline. She declined to say what the city would tell the government, but portrayed the Trump administration as “saber rattling.”

“We’re ready as a city to fight in court and to defend New Yorkers, defend the funding we receive from the federal government,” she said.

“But ultimately, what they’re doing is conflating immigrants with criminality in ways that certainly don’t reflect the experience in New York City. And they’re also trying to present cities as being places where crime is running amok and New York has had the lowest crime rates in the last several months in history.”

Crime has been falling in New York City for two decades; the 998 shootings in 2016 were the lowest since at least 1993.

The dollar amounts for the grants in question are relatively small compared with the overall budgets of the governments that received the letters. For example, according to the Justice Department, the City of New York received a $4.3 million grant in 2016.

Other places sent the letter included the State of California, which received a total of $10.4 million, divvied up among 128 cities and counties; Chicago and Cook County, where that city is located, and which shared a $2.3 million grant; New Orleans, $265,832; Las Vegas’s Clark County, $11,537; Philadelphia, $1.7 million; Miami-Dade County, $481,347; and Milwaukee County, $937,932.

Each of the letters was worded similarly and signed by Alan R. Hanson, the acting director of the Office of Justice Programs, which administers the Byrne law enforcement grant program, the federal government’s top source of justice funding for local jurisdictions. Until Jan. 20, Mr. Hanson was a top aide to Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama; Mr. Sessions had been the other Alabama senator until he took the helm at the Justice Department.

“Failure to comply with this condition could result in the withholding of grant funds, suspension or termination of the grant, ineligibility for future O.J.P. grants or subgrants, or other action, as appropriate,” Mr. Hanson wrote.

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