WASHINGTON - The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday told 29 states, cities or counties it believes they are violating a law prohibiting them from limiting information sharing with U.S. immigration officials, and it asked them for details on their compliance.
The move, which could result in the jurisdictions being added to a list of five other cities and counties the government says are violating federal law, widens the effort by Republican President Donald Trump to cut money to so-called sanctuary cities. His administration says these places shelter immigrants living in the country illegally.
Early in his presidency, Trump signed an executive order pledging to cut funding to those cities. If they are found in violation of the law, they would be ineligible for grants under a federal programme that supports local law enforcement, the Justice Department says.
Saying it found them preliminarily in violation, the Justice Department sent letters asking the localities to outline their compliance with a law that bars local officials from blocking the exchange of information about a person’s immigration status.
Among the 29 are Illinois, Oregon, Vermont and the District of Columbia as well as Seattle, Denver and 11 cities or counties in California.
“Jurisdictions that adopt so-called ‘sanctuary policies’ also adopt the view that the protection of criminal aliens is more important than the protection of law-abiding citizens and of the rule of law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.
He urged the jurisdictions to review their policies and establish partnerships to allow law enforcement to process criminal immigrants. The Justice Department letters ask for a response by Dec. 8.
This year the Department sent similar letters to a different group of jurisdictions. After the cities and states submitted more information, the department said in October that it found five places - Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and Cook County, Illinois - were not in compliance with the law.
The jurisdictions have fought back, including with lawsuits, and say they do not prevent information sharing with the government. The cities also say they do not want to spend local resources on immigration enforcement.
A federal judge in Chicago blocked Trump’s executive order that aimed to restrict funding to sanctuary cities. The Justice Department said in September it would appeal the ruling.
On Wednesday in another legal blow for the administration, a federal judge ruled the Justice Department could not withhold funds from Philadelphia. The department said it was “reviewing the ruling and determining next steps.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Chung and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman