‘Claw-back’ pledge from Sessions raises stakes in sanctuary cities

Jeff Sessions, Sean Spicer
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, right, accompanied by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, talks to the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, March 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

BOSTON (STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE) – The U.S. Department of Justice will require communities applying for its grants to “certify compliance” with federal immigration law and “claw-back” funds awarded to those who are not complying, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday.

Sessions urged municipalities and states to end so-called sanctuary policies, through which local governments do not enforce federal immigration laws.

“The American people are justifiably angry,” he said in a press conference. “They know 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.”

Sessions focused his remarks on a federal law known as Section 1373, which says a federal, state or local government may not prohibit or restrict any government entity from “sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”

All jurisdictions seeking or applying for Department of Justice grants will be required to certify compliance with Section 1373 to receive awards, he said.

“The Department of Justice will also take all lawful steps to claw-back any funds awarded to a jurisdiction that willfully violates Section 1373,” he said.

This fiscal year, the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs and Community Oriented Policing Services expect to award more than $4.1 billion in grants, Sessions said.

Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford blasted Sessions’ announcement.

“The President is trying to force our cities to join him in his bullying of immigrants and their families,” Bickford said in a statement. “Massachusetts Democrats stand with our sanctuary cities and immigrants across our Commonwealth, and we will help them fight this unconstitutional threat.”

Several Massachusetts municipalities — including Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea and Northampton — consider themselves sanctuary cities.

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, in a Herald Radio interview that aired before Sessions spoke, called for people on both sides of the sanctuary city issue look “beyond ideology” and “open up our hearts and minds to the facts.”

“We don’t have a violent people,” Curtatone said. “You don’t get a free pass in our community. Crime is down.”

Some cities have adopted policies that feature refusal to detain known felons under federal detainer requests, Sessions said, citing a Department of Homeland Security report showing that in one week there were more than 200 instances of jurisdictions refusing to honor detainer requests concerning individuals charged or convicted of a serious crime. Eighty percent of Americans believe that cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes should be required to turn them over to immigration authorities, Sessions said, citing polling data.

Sessions’ remarks come after a Jan. 25 executive order in which President Donald Trump directed federal agencies “to employ all lawful means to ensure the faithful execution of the immigration laws of the United States against all removable aliens,” and instructed the attorney general to ensure that municipalities that do not comply with federal immigration law do not receive any federal funding other that what is required by law.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Monday called the executive order “just clearly unconstitutional.”

“There’s no place else to go with this,” Warren said at a New England Council lunch. “You can go straight to the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act that said the federal government cannot use the threat of withholding assets or access to federal money in one area in order to coerce behavior in another area.”

Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons said her city would not change its stance as an “inclusive, diverse and welcoming community to all whom have come here to make a better life for themselves.”

“Given that Donald Trump has been stating for months that he would seek to punish sanctuary cities like Cambridge by withholding federal funding, today’s statement by the Attorney General does not come as a surprise,” she said in a statement. “That does not make it any less irresponsible or disgraceful that the federal government would continue to push for punitive and heartless actions like this one.”

The Boston-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice is representing Chelsea and Lawrence in a federal lawsuit that it says is “designed to stop this federal overreach that tramples on local autonomy, harms immigrant families and children, and makes our communities less safe.”

[Colin A. Young contributed reporting]