Nevada will be a political battleground in the midterm elections, and U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions stepped into the middle of the fray Wednesday with a not-so-subtle message: Don't let the state become like California.
He was introduced to a group of law enforcement officials in Las Vegas by Nevada Atty. Gen. Adam Laxalt, who is a likely candidate to run for governor as a Republican and has endorsed the Trump administration's hard-line approach to immigration. Laxalt, the grandson of former Sen. Paul Laxalt, joined several other state attorneys general in a letter seeking to stop illegal immigration and prevent states like Nevada from becoming a "sanctuary state."
Sessions sprinkled his speech with horror stories of gangs like MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles and has "tentacles stretching from the Salvadoran prison system across the United States," the attorney general said. He brought up the story of Kathryn Steinle, who was killed while walking on a pier in San Francisco with her father; authorities charged a Mexican national who had served three federal prison terms for felony reentry into the country.
"Removing criminals like these from our streets makes Nevada safer," Sessions said. "It would make Los Angeles and San Francisco safer — if they would do it."
Nevada, however, has been a trending blue state for the last few presidential election cycles and has a fast-growing immigrant community. In November, Hillary Clinton won the state, and Democrats took control of the state Legislature. Now, Sen. Dean Heller is considered to be one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the Senate as he vies to hang onto his seat in 2018.
Before Sessions spoke to law enforcement officials, several dozen protesters had gathered outside the U.S. attorney's office near downtown Las Vegas, arguing that the Justice Department's desire to tie federal dollars to local law enforcement's assistance in pursuing immigration law is detrimental to keeping communities safe.
"Sessions, Sessions, you can't hide — we can see your racist side," they chanted as several motorists honked as they drove down Las Vegas Boulevard.
Several so-called sanctuary cities across the country — including Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle — have been the subject of attacks by those favoring tough immigration policies. Las Vegas Metro Police had been included as an uncooperative department by the Justice Department in several task reports, and Sessions said that was in the process of being reviewed.
Chuck Callaway, police director for the office of intergovernmental services with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said the department hadn't lost any funding yet because of those reports but feared it could lose future funding.
"That is one of our primary concerns," he said.
Sessions said the presidential election sent a message about the need for tough immigration policy and cooperation among local, state and federal law enforcement.
"The desire of the American people is clear — they want a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest and protects public safety," he said. "They have a right to demand that of their elected representatives and law enforcement."
But opponents of Trump's immigration policies criticized a federal government program that, they said, leads to unsafe communities by discouraging people who are here illegally from reporting crimes. The 287(g) program allows state or local law enforcement to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in immigration enforcement. It has been opposed by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, which says it involves racial profiling and stretches local resources.
Alicia Contreras, Nevada state director for Mi Familia Vota, stood outside the U.S. attorney's office amid protesters from local union groups and said Sessions was promoting fear-based rhetoric without real solutions.
"Families shouldn't feel fear to report a crime. They shouldn't fear having to call the fire department or anyone in public safety making a community safe," she said. "This shouldn't be about fear. This should be about making good policy."
Sessions, who spoke for about half an hour, also talked about the opioid epidemic that has gripped parts of the country. He said that the Justice Department was committed to combating the problem of human trafficking and other violent crime, and that it plans to hire 300 more assistant U.S. attorneys.
"I believe that is the point of the spear," he said.
2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and background on Sessions' appearance.