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Milwaukee County among places Justice Dept. threatens in immigration fight

FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2017 file photo, a woman holds a sign at a rally outside of City Hall in San Francisco. The Trump administration is moving beyond rhetoric in its effort to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The Justice Department is forcing nine communities to prove they are complying with an immigration law to continue receiving coveted law enforcement grant money. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

A woman holds a sign at a rally outside of City Hall in San Francisco in January. The Trump administration is moving beyond rhetoric in its effort to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The Justice Department is forcing nine communities, including Milwaukee County, to prove they are complying with an immigration law to continue receiving coveted law enforcement grant money. (AP File Photo/Jeff Chiu)

By SADIE GURMAN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration intensified its threats to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to comply with federal immigration authorities, warning nine jurisdictions Friday that they may lose coveted law-enforcement grant money unless they document cooperation.

It sent letters to officials in California and major cities including Milwaukee County, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, all places the Justice Department’s inspector general has identified as setting restrictions on the information local law enforcement can provide to federal immigration authorities about those in their custody.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has warned that the administration will punish places that refuse to cooperate with efforts to find and deport immigrants who are in the country illegally. But some of the localities continued to resist federal pressure, despite risking the loss of money that police agencies use to pay for everything from body cameras to bulletproof vests.

“We’re not going to cave to these threats,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic said, promising a legal fight if the money is pulled.

Playing off Sessions’ recent comments that sanctuary cities undermine the fight against gangs, the Justice Department said the places under financial threat are “crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime.”

After a raid led to the arrests of 11 MS-13 gang members in California’s Bay Area “city officials seemed more concerned with reassuring illegal immigrants that the raid was unrelated to immigration than with warning other MS-13 members that they were next,” the department said in a statement.

The federal law in question says state and local governments may not prohibit police or sheriffs from sharing information about a person’s immigration status with federal authorities. Friday’s letters warn officials they must provide proof from an attorney that they are following the law.

The money could be withheld in the future, or terminated, if local officials fail to show proof, wrote Alan R. Hanson, acting head of the Office of Justice Programs. The grant program is the leading source of federal justice money to states and local communities.

Leaders in Chicago and Cook County, which shared a grant of more than $2.3 million in 2016, dismissed the threat.

So did the mayor’s office in New York City, which received $4.3 million. The Justice Department pointed to Chicago’s rise in homicides and said New York’s gang killings were the “predictable consequence of the city’s soft-on-crime stance.”

“This grandstanding shows how out of touch the Trump administration is with reality,” said Seith Stein, a spokesman for the New York City mayor’s office. “Contrary to their alternative facts, New York is the safest big city in the country, with crime at record lows in large part because we have policies in place to encourage cooperation between NYPD and immigrant communities.”

The jurisdictions also include Clark County, Nevada; Cook County, Illinois; and Miami-Dade County, Florida.

They were singled out in a report from May 2016 by the Justice Department’s inspector general, which found that local policies or rules could interfere with providing information to immigration agents. Following the report, the Obama administration warned cities that they could miss out on grant money if they did not comply with the law, but it never actually withheld anything.

The report pointed to a Milwaukee County rule stipulating that immigration detention requests be honored only if the person has been convicted of one felony or two misdemeanors, has been charged with domestic violence or drunken driving, is a gang member, or is on a terrorist watch list, among other constraints.

It also took issue with a New Orleans Police Department policy that it said might hinder communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That city received nearly $266,000 in grant money through the program in fiscal year 2016. New Orleans has used Justice Department money to pay for testing DNA kits, police body cameras, attorneys for domestic violence victims and other expenses.

Zach Butterworth, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s executive counsel and director of federal relations, said the city drafted its policies after consulting federal immigration and Homeland Security officials. It was reviewing the Justice Department’s letter.

“We don’t think there’s a problem,” he said.

Butterworth said the New Orleans Police Department has seen a 28 percent drop since November in calls for service from people who speak little or no English.

“People are scared, and because of that, they’re less willing to report crime,” Butterworth added.

Other places also insisted they were in compliance. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, the elected head of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said the city and county were wrongly labeled sanctuary cities.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said the county is hardly succumbing to violence.

“Milwaukee County has its challenges but they are not caused by illegal immigration,” he said in a statement. “My far greater concern is the proactive dissemination of misinformation, fear, and intolerance.”

Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in Baton Rouge, La.; Ivan Moreno in Milwaukee; Sophia Tareen in Chicago; and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas also contributed to this report.

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