The House Republican in charge of writing the Justice Department’s budget vowed Monday that this will be the year Congress punishes sanctuary cities, insisting he’ll use his powers as chairman to make the Obama administration strip grant money from localities that refuse to cooperate with immigration agents.
Rep. John Abney Culberson, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department, warned Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch that if she doesn’t move quickly to shut down sanctuary cities, he will use existing powers to prevent her from shifting money around within the 2016 budget.
The Texas Republican said federal law already requires local governments to cooperate with immigration agents, and those that refuse are breaking the law — and don’t deserve federal funds.
“This is a complicated problem with a simple solution. State and local law enforcement agencies should not receive federal law enforcement grant money unless they are in compliance with federal law,” he said in a statement.
His vow comes after a year of tragic consequences from sanctuary cities, including the July slaying of Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old woman killed while walking the San Francisco waterfront with her father. Authorities have charged an illegal immigrant who’d been deported five times before, but who’d been released onto the streets by the local sheriff in compliance with his policy of refusing to cooperate with immigration agents.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which handles deportations, counts more than 300 jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with them to one extent or another.
But many of those jurisdictions continue to get federal grant money — including money in some cases to hold the very illegal immigrants that they are refusing to turn over to federal authorities.
Mr. Culberson called that situation “nonsensical” and said he would see that it’s changed.
In a letter to Ms. Lynch, the chairman said he wanted her to include a certification for localities applying for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, the community-oriented police office assistance program and the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) vowing that they are complying with federal laws, including cooperating with ICE agents.
Mr. Culberson said if Ms. Lynch doesn’t agree, the Justice Department could face consequences when Congress writes its 2017 spending bill. And he warned that he might even refuse Ms. Lynch’s “reprogramming” requests to move money around to her own priorities this year — a more immediate threat that he, as chairman of the subcommittee, could try to carry out unilaterally.
The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday morning, while congressional Democrats questioned whether Ms. Lynch even had the authority to ask for the certifications.
The fight over sanctuary cities is a repeat of last year, when some Republicans had insisted Congress try to use the year-end spending bill to punish sanctuary cities. GOP leaders, intent on avoiding a showdown with President Obama, rejected that option.
Instead the House passed a standalone bill to withhold funding, but Senate Democrats launched a filibuster to block the bill and defend sanctuaries.
The Center for Immigration Studies, which supports an immigration crackdown, said some 9,000 criminals ICE had wanted to deport were instead released in the community by sanctuary cities in 2014.
More than a quarter of them had gone on to commit new crimes within a few months, said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the center, who praised Mr. Culberson’s challenge.
“Now we’ll see if the Obama administration and the sanctuary jurisdictions will be willing to risk their funding in order to protect criminal aliens,” she said.
Mr. Obama has been trapped on the issue of sanctuary cities. His top deportation official, ICE Director Sarah Saldana, has said sanctuary cities are unsafe and put her agents at risk because they have to sometimes track down violent criminals out in the community rather than taking custody of them from prisons and jails.
At one point she told Congress she would welcome laws such as Mr. Culberson’s proposed crackdown. But after an outcry from immigrant rights groups, she backed down the next day.
Hispanic advocacy groups say asking local police and sheriff’s departments to cooperate with federal authorities erodes trust between minorities and law enforcement, leading to unreported crimes and less safe communities.
When he took office, Mr. Obama continued a Bush-era program known as Secure Communities, which asked local police to hold illegal immigrants for pickup. But after hundreds of jurisdictions said they wouldn’t cooperate, he scrapped that policy.
Instead he announced his Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which merely asks for notification ahead of time so his agents could be on hand, but that wouldn’t require local police to hold illegal immigrants beyond their regular release time.
The PEP has enticed some jurisdictions to begin cooperating again — though most of them say they still reserve the right to put limits on how much they’ll do to help out the federal government.
Mr. Culberson said those jurisdictions are breaking one federal law that prohibits shielding illegal immigrants from detection, and another that says localities cannot stop their officers from cooperating with Homeland Security.