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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti asks the federal government to define a 'sanctuary city'

Amid a new call from the Trump administration to cut off federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck had a question for the head of Homeland Security on Wednesday: What exactly is a sanctuary city?

Garcetti and Beck joined a bipartisan handful of mayors and law enforcement leaders from across the country in Washington to air their concerns about President Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration to Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.

Los Angeles is among the jurisdictions — often called sanctuary cities — that don’t assist with federal immigration enforcement. State and local leaders in California have said they will continue to protect people in the country illegally despite the Trump administration's threats.

After the closed-door meeting, mayors and police chiefs said their main request for Kelly was for a firm definition of what the federal government considers a sanctuary city.

“We think that as long as we’re complying with federal law then we shouldn’t be labeled with whatever label intimates that we’re not,” Beck said. “We’re looking for clarification; we are looking to be involved in the conversation so that decisions aren’t made that affect us without our input.”

Homeland Security spokesman Dave Lapan said the department is working on a definition but does not have a timeline for when it would be finalized.

Although there is no legal definition of the term, the administration has seemed to define sanctuary jurisdictions as ones that don’t comply when Immigration and Customs Enforcement asks them to detain prisoners after they have served their sentences so they can be picked up for deportation.

Multiple federal courts have said the detainer orders differ from an official warrant and are not legal justification for holding someone who has served his or her sentence or is no longer under arrest.

Los Angeles is one of several cities in California that does not hold people for immigration officials without a warrant, and Garcetti said that is going to continue.

“We see it as abiding by the Constitution, because there is case law that says we can’t hold people for longer than permitted,” Garcetti said after the meeting.

Lapan said the Department of Homeland Security is working on ways to address concerns about the legality of holding someone for immigration officials, as well as the concerns of mayors of cities that have laws instructing law enforcement officers not to comply with immigration officials.

"Part of having this discussion is to find out, 'How can we get around this?'" Lapan said. "If we are dealing with a criminal alien, somebody who is both in the country unlawfully and has committed crimes, the best place for us to take them into custody is in a jail or prison. That's the safest for everyone, both our officers and the communities."

Garcetti also disputes the administration's assertion that it can withhold federal funds from cities that don't comply with ICE orders. Garcetti pointed to a 2012 Supreme Court decision that said the government couldn't withhold Medicaid funds if states chose not to expand access to the program under the Affordable Care Act.

"I think we all feel on very strong constitutional and legal footing that it was decided in the Obama administration you can’t put a legal gun to the head, a financial gun to the head of jurisdictions, whether it’s states or localities, and take their money if you don’t agree with what they are doing in a different area," he said.

Garcetti invited Kelly to visit Los Angeles. "We need to make sure that we also are showing the perspectives of everyday people in cities like Los Angeles,” he said.

Garcetti also attended California congressional Democrats' weekly lunch and met privately with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) before appearing on an immigration panel hosted by House Democrats.

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