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In a legal retreat, Sessions puts limits on financial consequences for 'sanctuary cities'

Atty. Gen. Jeff  Sessions. (Jim Lo Scalzo / TNS)
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions. (Jim Lo Scalzo / TNS)

In an apparent retreat on the war against cities and counties that refuse to cooperate with immigration enforcement, the Trump administration has settled on a narrow definition of what it means to be a “sanctuary city,” and limited the potential financial consequences for state and local governments.

At most, the sanctuary jurisdictions will lose grants from the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department – not all federal funds, according to an order signed Monday by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.

During last year’s campaign and the early days of the administration, President Trump and Sessions frequently attacked cities, states and corrections agencies that refuse to assist with federal immigration enforcement, saying illegal immigration was fueling what they described as a surge in gang violence and other crime.

Five days after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that said “sanctuary jurisdictions” were not eligible to receive federal grants. The Justice Department on April 21 sent letters to nine jurisdictions, saying they were at risk of losing their grants from the department.

But U.S. District Judge William Orrick blocked enforcement of Trump’s order nationwide on April 25, saying that it violated the Constitution and brought on “substantial confusion and justified fear” in local governments that they would lose all their federal grants, not just their law enforcement funding.

In an angry tweet, Trump called the ruling “ridiculous” and vowed to “see you in the Supreme Court!”

The Trump administration had never actually spelled out what it meant to be a sanctuary city.

Sessions’ memo, a reaction to Orrick’s order, says it will mean only places that “willfully refuse to comply” with a 1996 federal law that requires federal, state and local governments to share information about someone’s immigration status.

That means that Trump’s threat may not amount to much. When cities and counties accept grants from the Justice Department, they already agree to comply with that law. It also means Trump’s Jan. 25 order won’t apply to cities and counties that refuse to honor “detainer” requests to hold people who are in the country illegally for arrest on immigration charges.

Immigration rights lawyers saw the memo as an admission by the Justice Department that the law was not on its side in the sanctuary city argument.

But Sessions' memo makes it clear that the administration has not given up on its goals of using the power of federal funding in the future to push for tougher enforcement.

“Going forward, the [Justice] Department, where authorized, may seek to tailor grants to promote a lawful system of immigration,” Sessions wrote.

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