Law & the Courts

Reining in Sanctuary Cities

Attorney General Sessions discusses sanctuary cities at a White House press conference. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that to be eligible for Department of Justice grant money, local jurisdictions will have to certify that they are in compliance with federal immigration law. This has come as an outrage to elected officials in several “sanctuary cities,” including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, who have declared plans to buck the administration and potentially sue.

The attorney general’s announcement is, in reality, not news. He has simply reiterated an element of President Trump’s executive order aimed at “enhancing public safety in the interior of the United States,” signed on January 25.

And the law is on his side. The relevant statute reads:

Notwithstanding any other provision of Federal, State, or local law, a Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not 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.

To be clear, this is not a blanket prohibition on all policies associated with sanctuary cities. But localities that specifically forbid their officials to provide information to federal immigration authorities are violating the black-and-white letter of the law. A report from the Department of Justice’s inspector general last year found that sanctuary cities such as Chicago are running afoul of this statute. It is entirely appropriate for the federal government to make law-enforcement funding conditional on jurisdictions not themselves ignoring the law.

The Obama administration encouraged sanctuary cities, and President Trump is right to push in the opposite direction. The more than 300 sanctuary jurisdictions across the country release thousands of illegal immigrants subject to deportation back onto the streets every year, at a risk to public safety. Recall that the illegal immigrant who killed Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco in 2015 had seven felony convictions and had been deported five times previously; at the time of the killing, he was facing a sixth deportation order. Even as Democrats at all levels of government declare their support for deporting known criminals, sanctuary-city policies keep those individuals out of the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

More fundamentally, it is impossible to have a truly effective regime of interior enforcement if localities aren’t willing to cooperate with the federal government even when it comes to illegal immigrants who have been arrested for committing crimes.

The Justice Department plans to award about $4.1 billion in grants in the current fiscal year, according to Sessions. In places like New York City and Los Angeles, some of that grant money goes toward valuable services, so Democrats are balking at what one California state senator is calling “blackmail.” But there’s no blackmail here. Every jurisdiction can benefit from the Justice Department’s largesse, provided they do what they should have been doing all along: enforce the law.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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