Justice Department rules intensify crackdown on sanctuary cities like Chicago

The Justice Department escalated its promised crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities Tuesday, saying it will no longer give cities coveted grant money unless they give federal immigration authorities access to jails and provide advance notice when someone in the country illegally is about to be released.

Under old rules, cities seeking grant money needed only to show they were not preventing local law enforcement from communicating with immigration authorities about the citizenship status of someone in their custody.

The announcement came even as questions swirled about Attorney General Jeff Sessions' future as the nation's top law enforcement officer following President Donald Trump's blistering criticism over recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions and Trump had bonded during the campaign, largely over their hardline views on illegal immigration. Trump long promised cuts in federal grants for cities that refuse to cooperate with federal efforts to detain and deport those living in the country illegally.

"So-called sanctuary policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes," Sessions said in a statement. "These policies also encourage illegal immigration and even human trafficking by perpetuating the lie that in certain cities, illegal aliens can live outside the law. ... We must encourage these 'sanctuary' jurisdictions to change their policies and partner with federal law enforcement to remove criminals."

The conditions apply to one of the Justice Department's most popular grant programs, which provides police money to buy everything from bulletproof vests to body cameras. And the requirements will apply to cities seeking grants starting in September.

The Trump administration strengthened its crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities Tuesday, announcing a new policy that says local governments will lose some federal grants if they do not give advance notice when illegal immigrants are about to be released from custody and give immigration agents access to local jails.

The new policy, announced by the Department of Justice, will apply to all cities, including Chicago, that get grants from the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance grant program, for which the administration has requested just over $380 million for the coming year.

So far, the new policy applies only to those justice assistance grants, which local jurisdictions can use for a wide variety of programs related to law enforcement, including drug treatment, witness protection and prisoner reentry programs.

Although the move carries considerable symbolism because of the high-profile debate over sanctuaries, the money involved is roughly half a percent of federal grants to state and local governments, according to figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

"So-called 'sanctuary' policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes,” Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said in a statement announcing the new policy. “These policies also encourage illegal immigration and even human trafficking by perpetuating the lie that in certain cities, illegal aliens can live outside the law.”

“This is what the American people should be able to expect from their cities and states, and these long overdue requirements will help us take down MS-13 and other violent transnational gangs, and make our country safer," he said.

Neither Chicago police nor the Cook County Sheriff's Office cooperates fully with ICE, a stance that includes not allowing agents access to inmates at the Cook County Jail. Both the city and county repeatedly have resisted warnings that they must provide more information on detainees or lose at least some federal funding, stating that they cannot pass data on to the federal government that they do not collect from arrestees.

The announcement Tuesday, however, specifically mentions that compliance now will include allowing “federal immigration access to detention facilities.”

Cook County officials did not immediately comment Tuesday.

Department of Justice records show the city and Cook County received more than $2.3 million through the JAG program in 2016. The county passed some of the dollars on to local jurisdictions for homeland security purposes and paid one public defender from the funds, according to 2016 budget documents.

"This is not the administration's first attempt to unlawfully withhold funding, and it probably won't be their last. But we will not be bullied into abandoning our values," said Matt McGrath, a spokesman for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Sessions has been pressuring so-called sanctuary cities for several months, but this is the first time that the Justice Department has set down specific rules and applied them to an entire grant program.

Under the policy, cities will have to meet three conditions if they want the grants: allowing Department of Homeland Security agents access to local and state jails to question people who lack documentation; giving 48-hour notice when undocumented prisoners are about to be released; and complying with a law that prohibits jurisdictions from stopping the exchange of information about an individual’s immigration status.

The policy, announced as Sessions comes under extraordinary criticism from President Trump, seems guaranteed to garner strong opposition from cities and the courts. In some states, courts have held that state and local authorities cannot detain people who are not charged with a crime simply because of a request from federal immigration agents.

Some cities have gone beyond refusal to cooperate with “detainers,” refusing all cooperation with immigration enforcement on the grounds that otherwise law-abiding people who are in the country illegally can be deported if they are snared on minor crimes.

Sessions, a fierce advocate for tougher immigration enforcement throughout his career as a U.S. senator from Alabama, has made the issue a priority during his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official. On Friday, he made a speech in Philadelphia, blaming the city’s sanctuary policies for contributing to violent crime.

Trump is expected to highlight similar issues on a trip later this week to New York’s Long Island, which is slated to highlight some recent high-profile crimes blamed on the Salvadoran-based MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha gang.

Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Coen contributed

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