WASHINGTON — The Justice Department ramped up pressure Wednesday on so-called sanctuary cities, including two in New England, that are seeking public safety grant money, warning that they could be legally forced to prove they are cooperating with federal immigration authorities.
Lawrence, Mass., and Burlington, Vt., were among approximately two dozen jurisdictions that were targeted.
The move prompted immediate backlash, with mayors from across the country boycotting a planned meeting at the White House with President Trump on Wednesday afternoon.
Trump responded by accusing the boycotting mayors of putting the needs of ‘‘criminal illegal immigrants over law-abiding Americans.’’
The Justice Department sent letters to the jurisdictions threatening to issue subpoenas if they don’t willingly relinquish documents showing they aren’t withholding information about the citizenship or immigration status of people in custody.
In a statement, Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence suggested the Justice Department’s tactics were tantamount to a “fishing expedition.” He said the letter came as a surprise because the city had not given the Justice Department any reason to think the city was hiding anything.
The city, said Rivera, has helped federal law enforcement agencies to “apprehend or hold undocumented criminals.”
“I would challenge the DOJ to produce a report of the number of undocumented criminals they have been looking for that we have denied them access to,” he said. “Lawrence is not harboring undocumented criminals.”
“Today’s letter is a red herring and a continuation to politicize the Federal Government’s failure to produce a common sense immigration policy,” he said. “If they make it seem that we are hiding the bad guys, it takes away the urgency to help the good guys.”
He said that the federal officials were focusing on “imaginary bad guys,” rather than moving to solve the problem of the “Dreamers,” the young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children whose fate is up in the air after recent debate in Washington.
In Burlington, Vt., Mayor Miro Weinberger said in a statement that the city “will keep defending public safety” and will continue to stand up to “federal overreach.”
Burlington, he said, continues to comply with federal immigration law, and “categorically rejects AG Sessions’ false assertion that the city is in any way protecting criminals.”
Weinberger said the city will resist the federal government’s “unconstitutional attempt to deputize our officers as civil immigration agents.”
“The city intends to supply the additional documents requested by the February 23 deadline and will continue to fully comply with the Justice Department’s inquiries,” he said in his statement.
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of the Boston-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said in a statement that the “federal government cannot commandeer local officials to enforce the federal government’s unconstitutional immigration policies.”
“Local officials will not be bullied into doing the federal government’s illegal bidding,” he said.
The Justice Department has repeatedly threatened to deny millions of dollars in important grant money to communities that refuse to comply with a federal statute requiring information-sharing with federal authorities. It’s part of the Trump administration’s promised crackdown on cities and states that refuse to help enforce US immigration laws.
Many areas have been openly defiant in the face of the threats, with lawsuits pending in Chicago, Philadelphia, and California about whether the administration has overstepped its authority by seeking to withhold grant money.
The move angered members of the US Conference of Mayors who had been set to meet with Trump on Wednesday to discuss infrastructure, drug addiction, and other topics.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, the conference president, said in a statement that ‘‘the Trump administration’s decision to threaten mayors and demonize immigrants yet again — and use cities as political props in the process — has made this meeting untenable.’’
‘‘The U.S. Conference of Mayors is proud to be a bipartisan organization. But an attack on mayors who lead welcoming cities is an attack on everyone in our conference,’’ he said.
New York’s Bill de Blasio and Denver’s Michael Hancock announced their boycotts on Twitter.
‘‘I will NOT be attending today’s meeting at the White House after @realDonaldTrump’s Department of Justice decided to renew their racist assault on our immigrant communities,’’ de Blasio wrote, adding that the move ‘‘doesn’t make us safer and it violates America’s core values.’’
Hancock said he had ‘‘better things to do than be part of a photo op for 45 as he threatens cities again.’’
Still, many mayors did attend. In remarks in front of the group, Trump blasted those who had boycotted.
‘‘My administration is committed to protecting innocent Americans and the mayors who choose to boycott this event have put the needs of criminal illegal immigrants over law-abiding Americans,’’ he said.
Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders added that if mayors have a problem with the Justice Department’s actions, ‘‘they should talk to the Congress, the people that pass the laws. The Department of Justice enforces them, and as long as that is the law, the Department of Justice is going to strongly enforce it.’’
As for the mayors, she said, the White House would love to work with them, ‘‘but we cannot allow people to pick and choose what laws they want to follow.’’
‘‘If we have a country with no laws, then nothing matters,’’ Sanders added.
Twenty-three jurisdictions received letters Wednesday, including the states of Illinois, Oregon, and California. The Justice Department said all the places were previously warned that they needed to provide information about their policies to be eligible to receive grants that pay for everything from bulletproof vests to officer overtime.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has blamed ‘‘sanctuary city’’ policies for crime and gang violence. He said Wednesday, ‘‘We have seen too many examples of the threat to public safety represented by jurisdictions that actively thwart the federal government’s immigration enforcement — enough is enough.’’
But defenders of sanctuary city practices say they actually improve public safety by promoting trust among law enforcement and immigrant communities and reserving scarce police resources for other, more urgent crimefighting needs.
Danny McDonald and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.