After Sessions’s pledge to pull funds from sanctuary cities, Boston asks: What laws are we breaking?

epa05874180 US Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R), with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (L), responds to a question from the news media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 27 March 2017. Attorney General Sessions delivered remarks and answered questions on state cooperation with federal immigration law enforcement officials.  EPA/SHAWN THEW
Attorney General Jeff Sessions responds to a question during a press briefing Monday at the White House. –Shawn Thew / EPA

In a shot across the bow Monday at so-called sanctuary cities, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would pull current and future DOJ grants from jurisdictions that are violating federal immigration laws.

“I strongly urge our nation’s states and cities and counties to consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to enforce our immigration laws, and to rethink these policies,” Sessions said in an afternoon press briefing.

In response, the City of Boston had a simple rebuttal: We’re not breaking any laws.

Boston and four other Massachusetts cities were recently named by federal immigration officials on a list of jurisdictions that limited cooperation with federal deportation efforts. However, Nicole Caravella, a spokeswoman for Mayor Marty Walsh, told Boston.com that the city’s Trust Act — which prohibits Boston police from holding undocumented immigrants for federal officials to deport — doesn’t run afoul of any immigration laws.

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“We do not have any policies that run contrary to federal immigration laws, and will wait for further clarification from the Department of Justice,” Caravella said.

On Monday, Sessions specifically cited a federal law, 8 U.S.C. Section 1373, which bars local laws that prohibit or restrict local officials from communicating or maintaining information related to an individual’s immigration status with federal authorities. In accordance with President Donald Trump’s executive order on January 25, Sessions said he would withhold or terminate DOJ grants received by cities that do not comply with the law.

But city officials point out that Boston’s Trust Act, which was passed in 2014, does not restrict police from communicating with federal immigration officials. The act only says that police cannot hold undocumented individuals in custody for the purposes of being deported (except in cases in which there is a court-ordered warrant or they are suspected of a serious crime).

Boston is projected to spend $5 million this fiscal year in DOJ grants, according to officials. According to the city, the grants cover a wide range of public safety services, including direct victim assistance, mental health support, and funding for the Boston police crime lab.

In a statement Monday, Walsh denounced Sessions’s threat to pull such funding.

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“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,” he said.

The Boston mayor has affirmed the city’s sanctuary status since Trump’s inauguration. Sanctuary city advocates point to research that suggests both documented and undocumented immigrants are more likely to report crime if they do not fear being questioned about their legal status. According to Walsh, 28 percent of Boston residents are documented immigrants.

Among other hardline immigration proposals, Trump has repeatedly pledged to strip funding from sanctuary cities and has signed an executive order directing the DOJ and Department of Homeland Security to block federal grants from sanctuary jurisdictions, which the administration interprets to be in violation of 8 U.S.C. 1373.

“These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic,” the order read.

However, it is unclear whether the Trump administration’s preliminary steps to crack down on sanctuary cities — a term that broadly and unofficially refers to jurisdictions that limit local law enforcement from assisting federal deportation efforts — will extend beyond so-called “scare tactics.” Legal experts have also questioned whether Trump can constitutionally defund local governments in retribution for not cooperating with federal deportation efforts.

Either way, Walsh has consistently signaled that Boston will not waiver on its policy — something which Caravella reiterated Monday.

“Boston is and will continue to be a City that values and respects immigrants, and the Mayor will continue to stand strong with our immigrant community,” she said. “This has not changed.”