WASHINGTON — The Justice Department escalated its promised crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities Tuesday, saying it will no longer award coveted grant money to cities unless they give federal immigration authorities access to jails and provide advance notice if someone in the country illegally is about to be released.
Under old rules, cities seeking grant money needed only to show they were not preventing local law enforcement from communicating with federal authorities about the immigration status of people they have detained.
Massachusetts municipalities including Amherst, Boston, Cambridge, Northampton, Salem, and Somerville have declared themselves sanctuary cities.
And on Monday, the state’s highest court ruled local law enforcement officials cannot hold a person who is wanted solely for immigration violations, a ruling that provides a basis for sanctuary cities to refuse to cooperate with federal officials.
The Justice Department announcement came as questions swirled about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ future as the nation’s top law enforcement officer following days of blistering criticism from President Trump over his performance. Sessions and Trump had bonded during the campaign, largely over their hard-line views on illegal immigration. And Trump’s campaign promises included slashing federal grants for cities that refuse to comply with federal efforts to detain and deport those living in the country illegally.
‘‘So-called ‘sanctuary’ policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes,’’ Sessions said in a statement. ‘‘These policies also encourage illegal immigration and even human trafficking by perpetuating the lie that in certain cities, illegal aliens can live outside the law. . . . We must encourage these ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions to change their policies and partner with federal law enforcement to remove criminals.’’
The conditions apply to one of the Justice Department’s most popular grant programs, which provides police departments money to buy everything from bulletproof vests to body cameras. The requirements will apply to cities seeking grants starting in September.
Sessions for months had been warning jurisdictions they could lose money, just for having rules that limit communication between local police and immigration officials. The new conditions say officials must let Department of Homeland Security employees have access to local jails in order to meet with immigrants and must give them 48 hours’ notice before releasing an immigrant wanted by immigration authorities from their custody.
‘‘This is what the American people should be able to expect from their cities and states,’’ Sessions said. ‘‘And these long overdue requirements will help us take down MS-13 and other violent transnational gangs, and make our country safer.’’
A judge in April blocked Trump’s executive order aimed at withholding funding from sanctuary cities, saying the president could not set new conditions on spending approved by Congress. But the Justice Department said it still could condition some of its grants to force cities to cooperate with immigration authorities.
Jorge Baron, executive director of the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said he expected states or local jurisdictions to challenge the restrictions under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves powers to the states that are not specifically delegated to the federal government.
‘‘I have serious doubts about the legality of what they’re trying to do,’’ Baron said. ‘‘It’s the feds trying to compel local jurisdictions to do something on their behalf.’’
But beyond that, he argued, it’s simply a bad idea to have local authorities enforcing immigration law: ‘‘Imagine your house is getting broken into and an undocumented person walks by and sees it. That undocumented person isn’t going to call 911 if they’ve heard the local police or the sheriff is involved in immigration enforcement.’’