Sessions: Sanctuary cities ‘dangerously undermine’ fight against gangs

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at a meeting to plan strategy on how to confront transnational criminal organizations, said “sanctuary cities” that decline to cooperate with federal immigration officials “dangerously undermine” the fight against gangs. (Photo by Andres Guerra Luz/Cronkite News)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ tough talk on sanctuary cities was welcomed by some in Arizona, who said cooperation is the best way to fight gangs. But others said forcing local police to work with federal officials would reduce safety at the local level. (Photo by Andres Guerra Luz/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeated criticisms of sanctuary cities Tuesday, calling them a threat to U.S. safety that “dangerously undermine” efforts to stop transnational criminal gangs.

The remarks came before a meeting between Sessions and a council of federal legal and law enforcement agency heads who were brainstorming ways the U.S. should “interdict and dismantle transnational criminal organizations” like MS-13.

Sessions said those gangs “enrich themselves by pedaling poison in our communities,” and sanctuary cities make it easier for them to enter the U.S. and hide in communities where they can recruit more members.

“Sanctuary cities are aiding these cartels to refill their ranks and putting innocent life – including the lives of countless law-abiding immigrants – in danger,” Sessions said. “Under this administration and this Department of Justice, there will be no safe quarter for gangs and those who support them.”

That language was welcomed by some Arizona officials who said – besides being required by both state and federal policies – cooperation between state and federal officials “is huge” when it comes to responding to cross-border criminal organizations.

But others in the state said that Sessions’ attack on sanctuary cities, which refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities,
is misplaced.

“Local law enforcement agencies need to be focused on community policing and keeping the community safe,” said Tucson Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, whose city is a self-proclaimed “immigrant-friendly community.”

Tucson Vice Mayor Regina Romero said the city has “limited resources” that should not be directed toward cases for which the federal government is responsible.

“The Trump administration wants to coerce and bully cities to do something that they’re not obligated to do,” Romero said, saying the Constitution protects states from that type of coercion.

But others said that local governments are obligated to help enforce federal immigration laws.

Rana Lashgari, a spokeswoman for Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio, said the city rejected sanctuary city proposals in February to comply with immigration laws, including Arizona’s SB 1070 and an executive order President Donald Trump signed in January.

That order threatens to deny federal funding to cities that do not cooperate with immigration enforcement efforts, Lashgari said, while SB 1070 bars elected officials from limiting an agency’s ability to comply with immigration laws.

She said city ordinances directing Phoenix police on how to follow these laws were to make sure the city was “exactly in line” with what the laws require.

“It’s nothing more than that, it’s nothing less than that,” she said.

Yuma County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Alfonso Zavala said SB 1070 had not changed things there much, as county officials have long had an “open line of communication” with the federal government on immigration issues.

The department has talked to border patrol directly and to police chiefs of surrounding jurisdictions, Zavala said, to make sure “everyone is on the same page” in regard to border security efforts.

It was Zavala who called that communication “huge” when dealing with transnational criminal organizations, because one agency cannot gather all the information necessary to take down international gangs that have drugs and gang members in U.S. communities.

Uhlich said Tucson police have aided in federal efforts targeting violent criminal immigrants and drug cartels.

But she said recent Trump administration statements have expressed “an expectation that local law enforcement will get involved routinely” in immigration enforcement efforts. She said that would be “extremely detrimental” to police department’s top priority – ensuring local safety.

Police need to be trusted by the community if residents are to report crimes, Uhlich said, but that trust is threatened when immigrants fear deportation if they go to police.

The council passed a resolution in December declaring the city supports the rights of all its residents, including immigrants. The resolution, on which Romero worked with the police chief and residents to end race-based traffic stops, requires the Tucson Police
Department to recognize that “mere unauthorized presence in the United States” is not a criminal offense.

Even if officers reasonably suspect a detainee is undocumented, the resolution said, it must release detainees “without delay” if they have not committed other detainable offenses.

Romero said the resolution shows that Tucson police will not participate in any raids or federal law enforcement efforts, efforts that federal officials have the resources to do themselves.

“What we’re saying is the Tucson Police Department is not going to help you (federal immigration officials) in any way shape or form,” she said.