The Department of Justice said Thursday that some so-called sanctuary cities have "boldly asserted" they will not comply with requests from federal immigration agents, setting the stage for a new dispute between localities and the Trump administration.
The clash centers on whether local jurisdictions are required to provide information to federal deportation agents about a person's immigration status, particularly those who have been arrested for local crimes.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions had given 10 state and local governments until June 30 to prove that they share information with federal immigration officials - or risk losing some Department of Justice grant money this year.
Federal law bars localities from creating policies that restrict the sharing of immigration-related information. But somelocal officials say the law does not require them to collect details such as a person's immigration status.
Sessions said the governments of all 10 targeted jurisdictions, including California, Connecticut and New York City, maintained that they comply with the law requiring such information-sharing.
But he signaled that the Justice Department may disagree.
"Some of these jurisdictions have boldly asserted they will not comply with requests from federal immigration authorities, and this would potentially violate" federal law, the statement said.
Sessions said the department is reviewing the letters. "It is not enough to assert compliance, the jurisdictions must actually be in compliance," he said in the statement, which cited U.S. Code 8, section 1373. That law says government officials "may not prohibit, or in any way restrict" employees from sharing information with federal immigration agents about a person's immigration status.
The Justice Department did not make the letters from individual jurisdictions public, or identify the allegedly recalcitrant jurisdictions.
But Philadelphia shared its 15-page letter with The Washington Post. It said that the city does not violate Section 1373, even though its policy bars officials from collecting immigration information from the people it encounters or arrests, unless it is relevant to a criminal investigation.
"The federal statute does not require cities to inquire about or collect immigration status information, but only prohibits cities from restricting the sharing of that information if they have it," City Solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante wrote.
Federal law also does not require local governments to detain immigrants so that U.S. deportation agents can pick them up, but the Trump administration is trying to make those requests mandatory.
Hundreds of cities and towns have adopted sanctuary policies that include refusing to detain immigrants arrested for local crimes after their release dates so that federal deportation agents can take them into custody. Such jurisdictions say detaining immigrants for that purpose may be unconstitutional, and burdens local jails with additional costs.
Sanctuary jurisdictions also say cooperating with immigration authorities makes cities less safe, because fewer immigrants are willing to work with local police and report crimes.
But the Trump administration says sanctuary policies endanger U.S. communities by returning accused criminals to the streets, where some have allegedly committed heinous crimes.
On Jan. 25, Trump issued an executive order threatening to strip federal funding from jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal agents.
In April, Sessions wrote to nine jurisdictions he said were identified during the prior administration as potentially uncooperative, demanding proof that they follow existing federal law. The jurisdictions are New Orleans; Philadelphia; Chicago; New York City; Clark County, Nevada; Miami-Dade County, Florida; Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; Cook County, Illinois; and the state of California. Connecticut, the tenth jurisdiction on the Justice Department's list, had already told the federal government it complied.
A federal judge temporarily halted Trump's executive order as overly broad in response to a legal challenge filed by San Francisco and Santa Clara County.
But the judge said the government could restrict funding under the more narrow definition the Justice Department says it is using with the 10 jurisdictions.
Some U.S. states and cities have joined the Trump administration to push for tougher sanctions against sanctuary cities.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) signed a law in May banning sanctuary cities, triggering another federal lawsuit, which the state defended last month with the support of the Justice Department. The government of Mexico, concerned about its nationals being caught in an expanding immigration dragnet, is siding with the plaintiffs in the case.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would bar sanctuary cities from receiving many federal grants and make them liable if an undocumented immigrant who is released from jail without notifying immigration agents goes on to commit new crimes.
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