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Sessions threatens to pull DOJ funding from sanctuary cities

In a surprise appearance at a White House news briefing Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that sanctuary cities risk losing millions in funding from his department if they do not comply with federal immigration laws.

But in Philadelphia, officials said that they aren't considering changing their policy and that the announcement "did not present any issues we were not already evaluating."

"We have very skilled outside counsel helping us evaluate what the real threats to funding are and what our legal options are," said Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney. She said the Trump administration's requirements for obtaining Department of Justice grants appeared to be the same as guidelines the Obama administration laid out last summer.

Sessions said sanctuary cities make the country "less safe by putting dangerous criminals back on the streets."

To receive grants from his agency, he said, cities will have to certify they are in compliance with a federal law banning local governments from restricting communication with the feds over their residents' immigration status.

And cities and states who fail to do so, Sessions said, could see the DOJ withhold grants, bar them from receiving grants in the future, or even "claw back" grants that had already been handed out.

In Philadelphia, police officers are barred from asking about the immigration status of people with whom they come in contact with. The city applies for DOJ grants every year, Hitt said, and the agency gave Philadelphia $26 million in fiscal 2015, the last year for which a full analysis of grant funding is available.

The grant programs that Sessions threatened to pull on Monday have funded equipment, supplies, and training for the Philadelphia Police Department, improved technology in city courtrooms, and antigun violence programs, Hitt said. The city has also received money from several other DOJ programs, including grants that help staff a domestic-violence clinic and fund a reentry program.

"The attorney general's comments today are a direct attack on public safety," Hitt said in an email. "Undocumented residents and their family members are much less likely to call law enforcement  when they are a witness to or a victim of a crime if they know that the police will turn them in to ICE. If we are forced to change Philadelphia's policy on this, all of our residents will be less safe."

She added the city has no current plans to change the policy. Mayor Kenney has been a staunch supporter of the sanctuary-city policy, and Police Commissioner Richard Ross has said he believes immigration enforcement should be left to the feds. The Pew Charitable Trusts found last year that 58 percent of Philadelphians support the city's sanctuary policies.

Sessions on Monday also referenced a list of local jurisdictions, published last week, that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had identified as "noncooperative" because they don't comply with detainer requests from ICE. It was unclear if those communities could also face "claw backs" or bans from seeking future grants over their detainer policies.

Fifteen Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia and its four neighboring counties, made the ICE list last week – but several told the Inquirer that they do cooperate with ICE, and found their inclusion on the list misleading.

As per a 2014 federal court decision in a wrongful-detention case in Lehigh County, many Pennsylvania counties regularly work with ICE – Erie County, for example, even lets ICE agents ride along with its local police officers – but won't hold people past their release dates, instead letting agents know when an inmate with a detainer is about to be released.

Philadelphia prisons will not release inmates or detainees into ICE custody without a federal warrant.