What Jeff Sessions’ latest sanctuary cities funding threat could mean for Philly

A memo from the “beleaguered” Attorney General targets a grant that’s meant more than $5 million to the city.

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall

Dan Levy / Billy Penn

Philadelphia officials are reviewing new federal guidelines that could strip the city of some funding because of its sanctuary city policy.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo Tuesday detailing new regulations for cities that apply for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Programs, a Department of Justice program that provides funding to law enforcement agencies across the country to support a broad range of needs to prevent and control crime. Over the last three years, the City of Philadelphia has received $5.1 million as part of the grant program, with $1.67 million of that coming in FY 16.

Saying “so-called ‘sanctuary’ policies make all of us less safe,” Sessions’ memo details new regulations for FY 17 recipients of the grant:

  1. Recipients must allow U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials to access any detention facility in order to meet with an undocumented immigrant “and inquire as to his or her right to be or remain in the United States.”
  2. Recipients must also provide at least 48 hours advance notice to DHS regarding the scheduled release date and time of any undocumented immigrant in custody when DHS requests notice in order to take custody of the person.

Those regulations, specifically the latter, appears to be at odds with the city’s current sanctuary city policy (administration officials prefer the title “Fourth Amendment City”). Under current policy, law enforcement in the city of Philadelphia will not detain undocumented immigrants at the request of federal immigration officials unless federal officials produce a criminal warrant.

City spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said Wednesday evening that the administration is “skeptical that AG Sessions has the authority to attach these grant conditions.”

“For the Trump administration to suddenly decide to attach these conditions, when no other administration has ever done so before, presents significant legal issues,” she said. “There are also constitutional concerns… If we forgo the funding, our law enforcement will lose valuable resources they have relied on for years. If we comply, it is very unlikely that immigrants who are victims or witnesses to crimes will report that to police and, consequently, the real bad guys will stay on the streets.”

In March 2016 under the Obama administration, Department of Justice officials notified recipients of the grant — including the city of Philadelphia — that in order to keep the grant, jurisdictions would need to comply with an existing federal statute that prohibits putting restrictions on communication between local agencies and federal immigration officials. City officials contend their policy does comply with federal law.

President Donald Trump campaigned on stripping away federal funding from sanctuary cities, though Mayor Jim Kenney has remained resolute when it comes to Philadelphia’s status.

“First of all, we’ve changed the name from ‘sanctuary city’ to ‘the Fourth Amendment city,’” Kenney told The Inquirer after Trump’s win in November. “We respect and live up to the Fourth Amendment, which means you can’t be held against your will without a warrant from the court signed by a judge. So, yeah, we will continue to be a Fourth Amendment city abiding by the Constitution.”

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