Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday targeted Lawrence for criticism during his speech in New Hampshire on efforts to combat the national opioid crisis.
Speaking during an appearance in US District Court in Concord, Sessions commended federal prosecutors in New Hampshire for recently bringing opioid trafficking charges against some 50 people, including “four illegal aliens residing in the sanctuary city of Lawrence, Mass.”
Sessions said “there can be no sanctuary” for fentanyl dealers.
There’s no official definition of a sanctuary city, but in general such municipalities do not allow their police departments to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detain and deport immigrants.
The Justice Department last year sent Lawrence’s police chief a letter warning that a city policy may be violating a federal statute that requires information-sharing related to immigration enforcement _ which would put the city at risk of not receiving public safety grant funding.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said at the time that he was “not concerned that this letter puts Lawrence in any jeopardy.” He also insisted last year that his city did not “harbor criminals.”
And President Trump in March mentioned Boston and Lawrence by name in a speech in Manchester, N.H., in which he said ending “sanctuary cities is crucial to stopping the drug addiction crisis.”
“I’m repeating my call on Congress to block funds for sanctuary cities and to close the deadly loopholes that allow criminals back into our country and into our country in the first place,” the president said.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in response at the time that Trump was criminalizing “both our immigrant community and those suffering from substance abuse, all in one speech.” And Rivera accused the president of “creating boogymen where we need solutions.”
Sessions was in Concord Thursday to unveil a plan to beef up the ranks of federal prosecutors going after fentanyl dealers in jurisdictions hit hardest by the overdose epidemic, including New Hampshire. He said prosecutors will go after opioid rings “aggressively” and “seize drugs, seize their money, and put their leaders in jail.”
Sessions said “enforcing our drug laws has never been more important than it is today” and that the stepped-up prosecution at the federal level will target traffickers, rather than users. “We want to go up the chain,” he said, adding that the Trump administration wants to cut the number of opioid prescriptions by one-third within the next three years.
“We’re going to work for it resolutely,” Sessions said of the prescription initiative. “We’re not just locking up criminals to lock up criminals. We’re preventing addiction from spreading.”
Earlier Thursday, a coalition of advocates said they would be staging a rally dubbed “Health Care, Not Prisons” outside the courthouse to demand access to good health care and recovery services.
“If Jeff Sessions really wants to help with the opioid crisis, he can start by having the Department of Justice defend the Affordable Care Act from a lawsuit by extreme GOP leaders,” said Zandra Rice Hawkins, executive director of the Granite State Progress Education Fund, one of the rally organizers, in a statement. “Health care coverage has been the number one tool to combat substance use disorder in New Hampshire. Without health access or protections for those with preexisting conditions, like those in recovery, more people will die and more families will be hurt.”
Hawkins said the Justice Department’s announcement that it won’t defend the Affordable Care Act and protections for people with preexisting conditions “is just the latest in a long line of health care sabotage by the Trump administration.”
Sessions conceded during his speech that law enforcement isn’t the only tool available to fight the overdose surge.
“Yes, treatment is important,” Sessions said. “Yes, prevention is important,” but “we in law enforcement have a role” as well. “The middle name of the DEA is enforcement, and we believe that it’s wrong and a big mistake to . . . allow drug-distribution organizations to grow.”
Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in October 2017.
In March, Trump returned to New Hampshire, a state he referred to as a “drug-infested den” in 2017, to tout a plan for prevention that included cracking down on dealers and reducing opioid prescriptions.
More than 1,800 people have suffered fatal overdoses in New Hampshire since 2013, according to data released in January by the New Hampshire Drug Monitoring Initiative.
Material from The New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report. Matt Viser and Maria Cramer of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Aimee Ortiz contributed.