Embattled Sessions announces new restrictions on funding sanctuary cities

Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits to speak at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Philadelphia.

As Attorney General Jeff Sessions weathered another round of criticism Tuesday from President Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice announced broader restrictions on law enforcement grants, aimed at withholding federal money from sanctuary cities like Philadelphia.

In the past, such grants have funded police overtime and training here; In 2016, the city received $1.67 million under the program. Under President Barack Obama, city officials were told that, to keep the grant, they would have to certify they were compliant with a federal law that bans any local laws prohibiting communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement about residents’ immigration status. The city sent the Justice Department a letter last month arguing that it did comply with the law.

Under the policy announced Tuesday, to qualify for the same grants this year, cities must fulfill two additional requirements. They must allow Homeland Security officials into detention facilities to ask immigrants held there about “their right to be or remain in the United States,” Justice Department officials wrote in an email Tuesday night. And, when Homeland Security officials request it, cities must give 48 hours’ notice before releasing an undocumented immigrant from custody.

City officials said Tuesday they were reviewing the new restrictions and couldn’t say whether they planned to modify the city’s sanctuary policies in response.

“We’re going to be evaluating this and what it means,” said Lauren Hitt, Mayor Kenney’s spokeswoman. In the past, the city has argued that the grant has nothing to do with immigration-enforcement laws and shouldn’t be linked to them. The city also will assess whether it can forgo the grant entirely, she said. The city has not yet applied for a 2017 grant, Hitt said.

The announcement came as Trump kept up a near-constant refrain of attacks on his attorney general that began with an interview in the New York Times last week, when the president said he wouldn’t have hired the former senator from Alabama if he’d known he would recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the election. “I think it’s unfair to the presidency,” Trump said Tuesday in a Rose Garden news conference.

Sessions said during a visit to Philadelphia on Friday that he was proud to serve the president, and the Washington Post reported Tuesday that he has no plans to step down. In his statement about the grant restrictions, Sessions echoed his speech here, decrying sanctuary cities as unsafe and describing the new rules as “what the American people should be able to expect from their cities and states.”

Kenney has countered that the city’s sanctuary policies encourage witnesses to report crimes and keep the city safer, and Police Commissioner Richard Ross has said he believes local police should stay out of immigration enforcement.

The city bans police from asking anyone they encounter about their immigration status; if an officer inadvertently learns someone’s immigration status, it only makes it into a police report when that person is suspected of a crime. That’s to protect undocumented witnesses and victims, say city officials, who have argued that because local police upload those reports to national databases that ICE can access, they’re complying with federal law.

Federal agents can ask to interview undocumented inmates in Philadelphia, Hitt said.

“Following that request, we make inmates aware of the request and provide notice of their rights in language-appropriate materials,” Hitt said. “It’s within their right to refuse the interview, to do the interview with a lawyer, or to do the interview on their own.” She said the policy was modeled on one used by the state of California.

The city doesn’t notify ICE before releasing undocumented inmates, Hitt said, unless ICE procures a criminal warrant. Since January 2016, the city has received five such warrants. One person has been turned over to ICE as a result, Hitt said, and the other four people either were convicted of a crime and transferred into state custody or still await trial.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of people Philadelphia had turned over to ICE after receiving a criminal warrant.