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‘Sanctuary cities’ defiant as Sessions reiterates threat to cut grants

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (left) introduced Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated press

Officials in several Massachusetts “sanctuary cities” remained defiant Monday amid repeated threats that the Trump administration might withhold federal funds from municipalities that don’t cooperate with immigration authorities.

“Fundamentally, we intend to use all the lawful authority we have to make sure our state and local officials who are so important to law enforcement are in sync with the federal government,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in brief remarks from the White House Monday.

The Department of Homeland Security recently named Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Northampton, and Amherst as cities that have enacted policies that limit cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


Across the state, leaders in those and other communities said the administration’s threats would have no effect on their policies toward unauthorized immigrants.

Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons called Sessions’ comments “irresponsible and disgraceful.”

“We still remain strong in our stance that we will remain a sanctuary city,” she said.

In Chelsea, where the population is 44 percent foreign-born, City Manager Thomas Ambrosino said unauthorized immigrants should remain confident that city and police officials stand behind them.

“We feel strongly about treating all people in Chelsea with dignity and respect,” Ambrosino said. “We’re not going to change, regardless of any policies coming out of Washington.”

There is 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.

In January, President Trump signed an executive order that said federal funding could be denied to any jurisdiction that refused to hand over unauthorized immigrants for deportation. But on Monday, Sessions spoke only about withholding Department of Justice grants, which are expected to total more than $4.1 billion this year.

Sessions said that in one week there had been more than 200 instances of jurisdictions refusing to honor ICE detainer requests, including in cases where people had been charged with crimes such as murder and sexual offenses against children.


“Countless Americans would be alive today and countless loved ones would not be grieving today if these policies of sanctuary cities were ended,” he said.

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in California described his comments as fear-mongering.

“There is absolutely no basis for the attorney general’s arguments that immigrant-welcoming cities and states are less safe,” the organization said in a statement.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has in the past pledged to shelter immigrants in City Hall if needed, in defiance of Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

“The threat of cutting federal funding from cities across the country that aim to foster trusting relationships between their law enforcement and the immigrant community is irresponsible and destructive,” Walsh said in a statement Monday.

Officials in sanctuary cities have refuted the administration's position that they are violating federal laws.

“We do not harbor criminals,” Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said in a statement, adding that the city had used Department of Justice grants in the past to buy bulletproof vests for officers and to upgrade radios in cruisers. In February, Lawrence and Chelsea sued to seek a judicial order that they are not in violation of federal law and cannot be punished for establishing themselves as sanctuary cities.

Refusing to honor a detainer request from ICE does not violate federal law, nor do ordinances that forbid city employees from handing over certain information, such as a person’s location or when they will be released from custody, said Laura Rotolo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.


Rotolo said Sessions was referring to a specific federal law that prohibits any state or local agency from forbidding the sharing of a person’s immigration status with the federal government.

Most municipalities that call themselves sanctuary cities already comply with that law, she said.

Sessions said the Department of Justice would require that jurisdictions applying for grants show they are complying with the law.

The department will “also take all lawful steps to claw back any funds awarded to jurisdictions” that willfully violate the law, he said.

Sessions said he was calling on local officials to comply with policies set by the Obama administration last summer.

But, he cautioned, “we believe that grants could be issued in the future that have additional requirements.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at