White House Puts More Pressure On Sanctuary Cities To Comply With Immigration Law

Jun 29, 2017
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. House of Representatives voted today to advance a bill that targets people who break the law and are in the country without documentation. This comes as the Trump administration tries to turn up the heat on so-called sanctuary cities. Those are places that basically don't share information with federal immigration authorities. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly spoke about the issue on Capitol Hill today.

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JOHN KELLY: President Trump has been clear that our borders are not open to illegal immigration, that we are a nation of laws and we will no longer look the other way. Well, we will no longer look the other way in the interior, either.

SHAPIRO: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to talk about this. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Congress is getting ready to leave town for the Fourth of July recess, but they're moving ahead on immigration first.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Republicans have given this issue a full-court press. The idea is to increase criminal penalties for felons who are deported and then return to the U.S. It's called Kate's Law, named after a tourist named Kate Steinle who was killed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco in 2015. He had a long felony record. And House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte says the man who killed Kate Steinle re-entered the country five times. He wants to make sure that never happens again.

SHAPIRO: The House passed another bill today that would strip grant money from jurisdictions that don't cooperate with immigration agents. Tell us about this.

JOHNSON: Lawmakers in the House want to make it easier for the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department to penalize sanctuary cities. They want to pave the way for the feds to get local jurisdictions to hold or detain undocumented immigrants for them so the feds can come up and pick them up. It's been a sticking point for years, Ari, because some communities say they have laws and policies in place that bar them from handing immigrants over to Immigration and Customs officials.

And some cities and counties have also been worried that if they did hold an immigrant, they could later be sued by people. So that - Republicans in the House are trying to give those places some legal protection for cooperating with federal officials. But there's a lot of controversy here. Immigration advocates say as many as 600 cities and counties could lose federal grant money. And immigrants could be out their rights to due process here, too.

SHAPIRO: While Congress is doing that, the Justice Department is also trying to crack down on sanctuary cities. What's happening there?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Back in April, the Justice Department's grant-making arm sent letters to 10 jurisdictions requiring them to provide proof by Friday that they're complying with the law. So far at least five places have responded - New York, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Las Vegas and New Orleans. And they're insisting they do follow the law. But this is important because the Justice Department has held out the threat that it's going to yank back grant money it's already given these places to hire police officers, pay for bullet-proof vests and maybe bar these places from winning new grant money if they're not cooperating.

SHAPIRO: Also, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Justice Department might consider a lawsuit against sanctuary cities. What are you hearing? Is that going to happen?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I've been canvassing my sources in and outside the Justice Department about this. I'm hearing not anytime soon. It's an idea. People are mulling it over - internal discussions. But even people opposed to more immigration are arguing the legal arguments for taking this kind of step are kind of flimsy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says sanctuary cities are hurting public safety.

But opponents of the law and this idea say this whole system is going to backfire because witnesses and victims of crime are not going to come forward for fear of being deported. And they say if the idea is to fight crime and make communities safer, this whole strategy to target immigrants is counterproductive.

SHAPIRO: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson - thanks very much, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.