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Jeff Sessions finally defined what “sanctuary cities” are

Until now, the definition of a “sanctuary” city or county has been nebulous. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions just spelled it out.

In a memo released Monday, Sessions established narrow criteria for defining sanctuary jurisdictions: those that “willfully refuse to comply” with a single federal immigration law, Section 1373. He also limited what types of funding the government can withhold from jurisdictions that don’t abide by it.


Section 1373 requires state and local officials to share information about individuals’ immigration status with federal immigration authorities. Last month, Sessions sent letters to nine jurisdictions that he had identified as potentially noncompliant with Section 1373, including Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, and Philadelphia.

The legal definition has caused some confusion as some cities and counties attempt to navigate the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigration without negatively impacting their own residents.

In his Jan. 25 executive order on immigration, President Donald Trump vowed to withhold federal funding from sanctuary jurisdictions unless they complied with federal immigration enforcement, specifically referring to Section 1373. But he didn’t offer a definition of sanctuary jurisdictions nor specify what types of funding they would lose.

In the memo released Monday, however, Sessions limited the funding the government can deny the jurisdictions: only grants awarded by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. The money at risk still notably funds programs that many law enforcement agencies rely on for technology upgrades, equipment, training, and community engagement, a technique shown to improve the relationship between police departments and the people they serve.

Still, the DOJ maintains the right to establish requirements for future grants to advance its “law enforcement priorities,” Sessions said.


Those requirements could include complying with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detainer requests — when local police arrest an undocumented individual and hold them for an additional 48 hours while federal authorities determine if they want to pursue deportation.

On April 25, a federal judge blocked the provision of Trump’s executive order that instructed federal funding be withheld from sanctuary jurisdictions. In his ruling, Judge William H. Orrick sided with the plaintiffs because only Congress has the right “to impose new conditions on federal grants.” He also said sanctuary cities or counties could face “immediate irreparable harm” if the executive order were implemented.

In his response, however, Sessions said the decision to withhold those funds was “squarely within the powers of the president.”

“This is the Trump era,” Sessions said at the time. “This will be the administration that fully enforces our nation’s immigration laws.”

In addition to the new interpretation of Trump’s executive order regarding sanctuary cities, Sessions requested on Monday that a federal judge lift the April 25 injunction on the policy.