WASHINGTON, Feb 25 (Reuters) - The Trump administration is turning to federal courts to force state and local officials to turn over records about immigrants in custody in a novel effort to circumvent so-called "sanctuary" policies.
Since mid-January, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued subpoenas to law enforcement agencies in California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York and Oregon seeking information about nearly two dozen suspected immigration law violators, according to the agency.
The inmates had been charged or convicted of crimes that included sexual abuse of a child, manslaughter and burglary, according to ICE.
The legal actions could help ICE obtain a wide range of information on immigrants in jail, including last known address, possible gang affiliations and any disciplinary actions while in custody, according to ICE.
In some cases, the agency requested photos of the immigrants as well. The details could be used by immigration authorities to track down people if they are let out and process them for deportation.
Republican President Donald Trump faces re-election in November and has made his battle against "sanctuary" jurisdictions a focus of his campaign for a second term. The "sanctuary" label is typically applied to cities and states that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.
Previous efforts by the administration to withhold federal funds from police forces in "sanctuary cities" were largely shut down by courts.
But ignoring a subpoena for documents or evidence can result in a fine or jail time, making it difficult for local law enforcement to push back. An ICE spokeswoman said the agency will continue using the strategy if it proves effective.
In recent weeks - as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up - the administration has explored new ways to intensify its fight against Democratic-controlled states and localities that it sees as uncooperative on immigration.
Kris Kobach, a Republican immigration hardliner currently running for a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas, said Trump recognized in 2016 that the sanctuary issue can motivate voters.
"I fully expect the president's campaign to continue making this case," Kobach told Reuters.
The most high-profile conflict has been between the Trump administration and New York over a state law that lets immigrants without legal status apply for driver's licenses and limits the sharing of records from the state's Department of Motor Vehicles with federal immigration officials.
In response to the law, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) restricted the ability of New Yorkers to enroll or renew enrollment in certain "trusted traveler" programs that allow them to speed through security at airports and other entry points.
The U.S. Department of Justice also filed two anti-sanctuary lawsuits earlier this month and Attorney General William Barr said his department was reviewing further steps to counter uncooperative jurisdictions.
The use of subpoenas to wrangle information from resistant states and localities has alarmed some immigration experts and advocates.
Lucas Guttentag, a DHS senior counselor during the administration of former President Barack Obama, says the subpoena power should not be used to coerce state and local governments to participate in Trump's immigration crackdown against their will.
"The use of this subpoena authority seems to be another example of the Trump administration distorting or manipulating the immigration laws to serve political ends," he said.
Federal immigration officials previously have used subpoenas to force employers or apartment buildings to hand over records or documents, according to current and former agency officials. But that legal authority was not typically employed against fellow law enforcement agencies, they said.
Chad Sublet, an attorney for the city and county of Denver, which was served subpoenas in January for records on four inmates, said in an email to ICE at the time that the requested information was available to the agency through other means.
"It is clear to Denver that ICE is using these administrative subpoenas for political purposes rather than pursuing a legitimate need," he wrote.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Office - one of the jurisdictions hit with subpoenas - said on Friday that it would provide the information and was legally obligated to do so.
A California state law passed in 2017 limits the ability of state and local officials to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, but San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said that the subpoenas take precedence over the state law.
A spokeswoman for the California attorney general referred a request for comment to the sheriff's office.
The DOJ filed lawsuits in federal courts to compel authorities in Denver and New York City - which initially resisted subpoenas - to hand over records.
A Denver official said it had not complied with the requests. A New York City spokeswoman said it would provide information on two people to U.S. attorneys, but that almost all of the information was either public or already available to ICE. (Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Alistair Bell)