Sessions Can Prosecute Sanctuary Cities As Attorney General

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, could take punitive actions against so-called “sanctuary cities” as soon as he takes office, should he survive what promises to be a brutal confirmation process.

Generally speaking, a sanctuary city is a jurisdiction that does not comply with federal detainer requests (or “immigration holds”). Officials in these jurisdictions contend detainer requests are unconstitutional. Some sanctuary cities order local law enforcement to not make inquiries concerning an individual’s immigration status, and provide identification cards for procuring government services.

The Department of Justice’s Inspector General (IG) issued a memorandum in August that advised these practices violate federal law.

“The Inspector General’s decision is sound and firmly settles the question,” Sessions said at the time. “Now, the law and the American people demand that this Administration cease its acquiescence in this illegality. The Obama Administration must immediately take action to withhold significant federal law enforcement funding for these offending jurisdictions.”

The IG finding empowers the attorney general to strip sanctuary cities of certain federal grants, a drastic step that carries its own political risks. Still, Sessions could exercise those prerogatives on taking office, igniting a battle of attrition with sanctuary jurisdictions, which, for the moment, remain defiant. The mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. have all pledged to remain safe havens for illegal immigrants. (RELATED: Bowser Reaffirms DC Is Still A Sanctuary City)

Sessions, if confirmed, can also shape policy surrounding deportations. Though the Department of Homeland Security sets enforcement priorities, the Department of Justice will play an important role in shaping these priorities in the early days of the administration. In addition, though the attorney general cannot order federal immigration judges to make certain findings, he can order Justice Department lawyers to appeal rulings that expand rights for illegal immigrants.

In that vein, Sessions can also push to bolster the ranks of the federal immigration courts, which are currently battling unprecedented backlogs.

Sessions must first run a bruising confirmation gauntlet. Congressional Democrats have already promised to aggressively scrutinize an alleged history of racially-charged remarks and actions from his tenure as U.S. attorney in Alabama.

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