Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions pauses while speaking to members of the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Pablo Martinez Monsivais

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday warned so-called sanctuary cities they could lose federal money for refusing to cooperate with immigration authorities and suggested the government would come after grants that have already been awarded if they don't comply.

Sessions said the Justice Department would require cities seeking some of $4.1 billion available in grant money to verify that they are in compliance with a section of federal law that allows information sharing with immigration officials.

New Orleans is likely among the cities in Sessions’ cross-hairs. The city was on a list released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week of jurisdictions that do not fully cooperate with the agency because of policies in place at the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.

City and Sheriff’s Office officials have denied that anything in those policies, which are largely the result of lawsuits and federal consent decrees governing the departments’ behaviors, in any way conflicts with federal law.

At the same, new pressure is being brought to bear on the city from closer to home. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, long a critic of New Orleans’ immigration policies, used Sessions’ comments to once again blast Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration Monday. A state lawmaker also has filed a bill seeking to punish so-called “sanctuary cities” in Louisiana.

Sessions’ statements in the White House briefing room brought to mind tough talk from President Donald Trump's campaign and came just three days after the administration's crushing health care defeat. But Sessions also acknowledged he was reiterating a similar policy adopted by the Obama administration last year.

"I urge the nation's states and cities to carefully consider the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to enforce our immigration laws," Sessions said.

The message is a furtherance of Trump's campaign promise to "defund" sanctuary cities by taking away their federal funding. But legal precedent suggests that would be difficult.

The Obama administration issued the same warning last year, telling cities they risked losing grant money in 2017 if they didn't comply with the law.

Sessions did not detail what specific factors would trigger the government to deny or strip a city of money, only that it would take "all lawful steps to claw-back" funds to cities deemed to be out of compliance.

Landry, in a statement sent out Monday afternoon, said he has warned Landrieu that New Orleans is in violation of federal law but that the mayor “has doubled down on political hyperbole in opposing President Trump’s efforts on this problem.”

Landrieu has repeatedly pushed back against claims that New Orleans is a sanctuary city, noting that the NOPD’s policies were crafted in conjunction with both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE. He and NOPD officials have also said they will not allow officers to be forced to aid a “deportation force” put together by Trump.

The sanctuary cities fight may play out in the state Legislature for the second time in as many years. State Rep. Valerie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, filed a bill Monday that would prohibit cities from having policies that limit cooperation with ICE. House Bill 135 also would require local law enforcement agencies to notify ICE any time they arrest someone who can’t “provide proof of lawful presence in the United States." 

Cities found to be in violation of the law would forfeit state grants and appropriations, according to the proposed bill. The measure also would give the attorney general the power to sue cities to force them to change their policies and would allow the state to collect fines from those municipalities.

The White House last week stepped up pressure on sanctuary cities by releasing a report on local jails that listed more than 200 cases of immigrants released from custody before federal agents could intervene. That list was compiled following an executive order Trump signed in January that called on the government to document which local jurisdictions aren't cooperating with federal efforts to find and deport immigrants in the country illegally.

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Refusing to honor such immigration detainer requests would not put a city in violation of the statute Sessions cited, which deals instead with law enforcement agencies' sharing of information about someone's immigration status.

Meanwhile, municipal leaders nationwide vowed to defy any crackdown.

"We are going to become this administration's worst nightmare," said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was among officials gathered in New York for a small conference that attracted officials from cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.

Mark-Viverito and others promised to block federal immigration agents from accessing certain private areas on city property, to restrict their access to schools and school records and to offer legal services to immigrants in the country illegally.

California Senate leader Kevin de León called Sessions' message "nothing short of blackmail. ... Their gun-to-the-head method to force resistant cities and counties to participate in Trump's inhumane and counterproductive mass-deportation is unconstitutional and will fail."


Advocate reporter Jeff Adelson and Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New York and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.