The Trump administration on Friday pushed closer to a showdown with cities and counties that have enacted policies prohibiting law enforcement personnel from cooperating with federal immigration authorities about people in the country illegally.
The Justice Department sent letters to nine jurisdictions, often referred to as "sanctuary cities," escalating warnings that federal law enforcement grants could be withheld if the areas don't prove by the end of June that they are abiding by a portion of federal law, referred to as Section 1373, that mandates local cooperation with federal officials on information about a person's immigration status.
The agency said the jurisdictions which received the letters had been singled out in a May 2016 report by the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General as having statutes that could conflict with federal law, adding that "many of these jurisdictions are also crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime."
"The letters remind the recipient jurisdictions that, as a condition for receiving certain financial year 2016 funding from the Department of Justice, each of these jurisdictions agreed to provide documentation and an opinion from legal counsel validating that they are in compliance with Section 1373," the agency said in a statement. "The Department of Justice expects each of these jurisdictions to comply with this grant condition and to submit all documentation to the Office of Justice Programs by June 30, 2017, the deadline imposed by the grant agreement."
The correspondence was sent to officials in New York City, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago, as well as Clark County in Nevada, Cook County in Illinois, Miami-Dade County in Florida, Milwaukee County in Wisconsin and the state of California.
While stopping short of saying those places were violating federal law, the inspector general in the 2016 report expressed concern that policies and statements from leaders in such areas could be promoting a lack of cooperation with immigration authorities and, therefore, could be subverting at least the intent of the federal law.
The conflict centers in large part on requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for local law enforcement to detain people taken into custody and found to be in the country illegally so they eventually can be processed for potential deportation.
The statement issued Friday by the Justice Department tied at least some of those jurisdictions to incidents of crime and violence, as well as the proliferation of the violent street gang MS-13.
"The number of murders in Chicago has skyrocketed, rising more than 50 percent from the 2015 levels. New York City continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city's 'soft on crime' stance," the statement said. "And just several weeks ago in California's Bay Area, after a raid captured 11 MS-13 members on charges including murder, extortion and drug trafficking, city officials seemed more concerned with reassuring illegal immigrants that the raid was unrelated to immigration than with warning other MS-13 members that they were next."
New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill issued a statement in response, saying the Justice Department demonstrated "a willful disregard for the facts" and making note of the city's steady decline in overall crime.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also pushed back.
"Neither the facts, nor the law are on their side," he was quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times as saying in a statement. "Regardless, let me be clear: Chicago's values and Chicago's future are not for sale."
Friday's action comes after Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month said the administration would stop awarding grants to jurisdictions that do not comply with Section 1373, echoing guidance from the Obama administration and aligning with an executive order issued by President Donald Trump shortly after he took office. Sessions said federal funding connected to such grant programs was expected to amount to $4.1 billion this fiscal year and hinted other types of grants could eventually be at risk as well.
Seattle announced two days later that it was suing the administration, asking a U.S. District Court judge to declare that its policies comply with federal law and that the Trump administration's withholding of federal funding would be an unconstitutional overreach. San Francisco similarly filed a lawsuit this year.
The effort is part of a broader crackdown on people in the country illegally by the Trump administration, as federal authorities have pointed to a series of violent incidents as well as statistics documenting the rates of crime and recidivism among people in the country illegally as warranting stricter policies.
But critics have countered that such policies make cities less safe by having a chilling effect on crime reporting in immigrant communities, and they raise studies that suggest sanctuary policies have little effect on overall violent crime.
Trump on the campaign trail also pledged to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities, saying they make communities less safe.
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