The Obama administration is preparing to crack down on sanctuary cities, Attorney General Loretta Lynch told Congress on Wednesday, saying she would try to stop federal grant money from going to jurisdictions that actively thwart agents seeking to deport illegal immigrants.
Her announcement marks a major policy reversal for the administration, which for years has opposed legislation that would have forced such a crackdown.
Ms. Lynch also said the federal Bureau of Prisons will no longer release illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities and instead will turn them over to immigration authorities to be deported. That is a response to last summer’s killing of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco.
“This is a very significant change, and we’re deeply grateful to you,” Rep. John Abney Culberson, Texas Republican, told Ms. Lynch at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee.
He promised to provide Ms. Lynch with a list of sanctuary jurisdictions and urged her to scour the list and see who is refusing to comply.
“If they insist on paying it out of their policy, and they won’t honor detainers, and they won’t share information, you know, don’t ask for federal money unless you follow federal law,” he said. “Delighted to hear you’re moving in that direction, and we’re going to work with you cooperatively and in a supportive way to ensure that that happens.”
The moves are bound to anger immigrant rights advocates, who for years have cheered as hundreds of county and city governments, jails, and sheriff’s and police departments have adopted sanctuary policies.
The administration has been caught in the middle of the fight.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency charged with conducting deportations, has pleaded for years for such a crackdown. But the Justice Department, formerly helmed by Eric H. Holder Jr., refused to cooperate.
That has changed under Ms. Lynch, who took office in April.
In a letter to Mr. Culberson this week, the Justice Department said if it determines a city or county receiving federal grants is refusing to cooperate with ICE agents, they cold lose money and face criminal prosecution.
The three programs at stake are the Byrne justice grants, the Community Oriented Policing Services program and the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. That last one is particularly galling to enforcement advocates because it pays local jails for housing illegal immigrants — including jails that refuse to turn over those immigrants to be deported.
Mr. Culberson’s office said he will submit a list of sanctuary cities maintained by the Center for Immigration Studies, which built its list off data from ICE.
Hundreds of states, counties, cities and jail systems are on the list — though some of them dispute the characterization as sanctuaries.
The most prominent sanctuary cities are Cook County, which is home to Chicago, and San Francisco, where the killing of Steinle last year drew attention to the situation.
She was walking along the city waterfront with her father when she was slain, and prosecutors blamed an illegal immigrant who had been deported five times.
He was supposed to have been deported again last year after being released from federal prison, but San Francisco asked that he be transferred to stand trial on an old drug charge. After local prosecutors dismissed the charge, he should have been sent back to ICE, which asked that he be held, but the sheriff instead released him under the sanctuary policy.
Ms. Lynch said she is taking steps to make sure that can’t happen again. She said before the federal Bureau of Prisons will release an illegal immigrant prisoner to a local community, it will check to see if it’s a sanctuary.
If so, the bureau will refuse the local request and instead send the immigrant to ICE for deportation.
“Particularly where we are dealing with a jurisdiction that essentially is not prone to honoring the ICE detainers — and those vary across the country, they just vary over time and place — our policy is going to be that ICE will instead have the first detainer, and that individual go into ICE custody and deportation,” she testified.
Last summer, President Obama threatened to veto a bill in Congress to strip federal grants from sanctuary cities.
At that time, the White House Office of Management and Budget said forcing localities to cooperate with federal immigration policies “would threaten the civil rights of all Americans, lead to mistrust between communities and state and local law enforcement agencies, and impede efforts to safely, fairly, and effectively enforce the nation’s immigration laws.”
It’s unclear what changed minds within the administration.
But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress on Wednesday that jurisdictions refused some 15,000 requests to hold illegal immigrants in 2014, and instead released them into communities. That meant rather than taking custody from a prison, his agents had to go out and track them down, costing more money and putting lives in danger.
“That was creating a real public safety problem for us,” he said.
He said he made changes to his own programs to make them more palatable, and a number of big cities and counties have agreed to some levels of cooperation.
Still, his agents are having trouble rounding up illegal immigrants who were part of the surge from Central America.
He said agents will often knock on doors and know someone is home, but they are not allowed to enter unless they are invited inside. Many illegal immigrants have been told by Spanish-language press and advocacy groups to refuse to open the door, he said.
Mr. Johnson said there are also “sensitive” places he won’t let his agents go to capture illegal immigrants, such as hospitals, churches and schools. That also limits the chances agents have to nab someone.
Indeed, of some 1,600 illegal immigrants targeted in raids in January, just 121 were captured.
Mr. Johnson insisted that the raids would continue, drawing heat from congressional Democrats.
Rep. David E. Price, North Carolina Democrat, said one young illegal immigrant in his state was caught while on his way to school.
“There are just questions about seizing him up in that criminal element as he wasn’t anywhere near it,” Mr. Price said.