Ever since Donald Trump began railing against undocumented immigrants at the beginning of his presidential campaign, so-called “sanctuary cities” have been a target of some of his strongest condemnation. He declared that as president he would withhold federal funding from jurisdictions that decline to share information about undocumented individuals with federal immigration authorities. And on Monday, his administration detailed one of its plans for doing just that.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, himself a strong supporter of tougher immigration laws, announced that the Department of Justice would deny grants administered through its Office of Justice Programs to jurisdictions that do not comply with 8 USC 1373. That particular segment of the U.S. Code says no government entity in the country may “prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”
In his remarks, Sessions announced new DOJ guidance that “requires state and local jurisdictions to comply and certify compliance with Section 1373 in order to be eligible for OJP grants. It also made clear that failure to remedy violations could result in withholding of grants, termination of grants, and disbarment or ineligibility for future grants. The Department of Justice will also take all lawful steps to claw-back any funds awarded to a jurisdiction that willfully violates Section 1373.”
Whether the clawbacks would be retroactive to grants already provided or limited to future grants only was unclear from the wording of the Attorney General’s remarks. A request for clarification sent to DOJ had not received a reply at the time this story was posted.
In 2016, OJP oversaw 2,995 grants that translated into $3.86 billion in funds to state and local law enforcement agencies. In his remarks, Sessions said that the grants would top $4.1 billion this year.
The OJP grants range in size from the tiny -- $3,674 to the Custer County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Department through the Bureau of Justice Assistance Small Agency Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program -- to the massive -- $264.3 million to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services through the Victims of Crime Act.
Jurisdictions throughout the country are divided on the effect that Section 1373 compliance has on local law enforcement efforts. Some believe, as Sessions does, that “when cities and states refuse to help enforce immigration laws, our nation is less safe. Failure to deport aliens who are convicted for criminal offenses puts whole communities at risk – especially immigrant communities in the very sanctuary jurisdictions that seek to protect the perpetrators.”
Others, however, believe that if local law enforcement officials are seen by the undocumented community as an extension of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they will be less likely to cooperate with police, either by reporting crimes, warning authorities of potential criminal activity or providing other information police find valuable.
What there is little disagreement on, though, is the importance of OJP grants to many local police departments. The money is often used to fund technical upgrades, training and other resources that might otherwise be beyond the budgetary capacity of smaller departments.
While major metropolitan areas may have the financial resources to maintain sanctuary city policies in the face of the loss of OJP funding, the administration’s new stance could force tougher choices on smaller municipalities, whose law enforcement agencies rely more heavily on the DOJ for funding.
That’s the pressure Trump wants to apply to local officials, and it isn’t immediately obvious that other federal grant programs managed by different arms of the executive branch couldn’t be weaponized against sanctuary cities in the future.