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Trump administration toughens policy toward 'sanctuary' cities, but the move affects only some funds

The Trump administration strengthened its crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities Tuesday, announcing a new policy that says local governments will lose some federal grants if they do not give advance notice when illegal immigrants are about to be released from custody and give immigration agents access to local jails.

The new policy, announced by the Department of Justice, will apply to all cities that get grants from the so-called Byrne Justice Assistance grant program, for which the administration has requested just over $380 million for the coming year.

So far, the new policy applies only to those justice assistance grants, which local jurisdictions can use for a wide variety of programs related to law enforcement, including drug treatment, witness protection and prisoner reentry programs.

Although the move carries considerable symbolism because of the high-profile debate over sanctuaries, the money involved is roughly half a percent of federal grants to state and local governments, according to figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

"So-called 'sanctuary' policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes,” Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said in a statement announcing the new policy. “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.”

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

Sessions has been pressuring so-called sanctuary cities for several months, but this is the first time that the Justice Department has set down specific rules and applied them to an entire grant program.

Under the policy, cities will have to meet three conditions if they want the grants: allowing Department of Homeland Security agents access to local and state jails to question people who lack documentation; giving 48-hour notice when undocumented prisoners are about to be released; and complying with a law that prohibits jurisdictions from stopping the exchange of information about an individual’s immigration status.

The policy, announced as Sessions comes under extraordinary criticism from President Trump, seems guaranteed to garner strong opposition from cities and the courts. In some states, courts have held that state and local authorities cannot detain people who are not charged with a crime simply because of a request from federal immigration agents.

Some cities have gone beyond refusal to cooperate with “detainers,” refusing all cooperation with immigration enforcement on the grounds that otherwise law-abiding people who are in the country illegally can be deported if they are snared on minor crimes.

Trump told a raucous crowd of supporters in Youngstown, Ohio, on Tuesday evening that his administration had launched a "nationwide crackdown on 'sanctuary cities.'"

"The predators and criminal aliens who poison our community and prey on our young people ... will find no safe haven anywhere within our country," Trump said.

Sessions, a fierce advocate for tougher immigration enforcement throughout his career as a U.S. senator from Alabama, has made the issue a priority during his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official. On Friday, he made a speech in Philadelphia, blaming the city’s sanctuary policies for contributing to violent crime.

Trump is expected to raise similar issues on a trip later this week to New York’s Long Island, which is slated to highlight some recent high-profile crimes blamed on the Salvadoran-based MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha gang.

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @jtanfani

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UPDATES:

6:40 p.m.: Updated with comments from President Trump to supporters in Youngstown, Ohio.

This article was originally published at 5:10 p.m.

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