Attorney General Jeff Sessions escalated his crusade against sanctuary cities Friday by taking his message directly to one of America’s largest cities with such a policy: Philadelphia.
In a 20-minute speech delivered at the U.S. Attorney’s office as protesters rallied outside, Sessions argued that efforts to shield undocumented immigrants from federal law enforcement put the public at risk and hamper the drive to combat violent gangs.
"Some jurisdictions in this country refuse to cooperate with the federal government when it comes to immigration authorities to turn over illegal aliens who commit crimes, even MS-13 members," Sessions said, referring to one menacing drug gang. "These policies are often called sanctuary policies, but they are giving sanctuary not to law abiding citizens of our communities, they are providing sanctuary to criminals."
Sessions has railed against the policies for years, well before he became attorney general in February. However, this is the first time in his new job he has ventured into such a jurisdiction to make his case against the measures, which generally instruct police not to inquire about immigration status and not to notify the federal government when a foreigner is being released from jail or prison.
"It saddens me to say one of these jurisdictions is Philadelphia. This is especially sad for the residents of Philadelphia who have been victimized as a result of these policies," the attorney general said somberly.
Sessions, an unapologetic cheerleader for law enforcement, asserted that the policies lack the support of police and are driven by politicians.
"Local police I know totally are supportive and want to work together on so many of these issues and I know you want to help. The problem are the policies that tie your hands and that makes all citizens, especially the police on the streets, less safe," the attorney general said. "I urge the City of Philadelphia and every sanctuary city to reconsider the harm they are doing to their residents."
Sessions pointed to several murders and shootings he said were linked to the policy, but Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said there was no sign it was driving up crime in the city.
“The very same year that I reinstated Philadelphia’s so-called sanctuary policy, the city experienced its lowest rate of crime in 40 years. The Trump administration is threatening to reverse that progress. If victims and witnesses of crimes don’t report those crimes to the police because they fear deportation, that allows the real bad guys to stay on the streets," Kenney said in a statement.
"Blaming an entire group of people for our country’s problems and violating their right to due process isn’t constitutional and it isn’t American. Philadelphia treats immigrants as we would any other resident under our criminal justice system," the mayor added.
A spokeswoman for Kenney said the mayor was not invited to Sessions’ speech.
During his address, Sessions said making changes to the policies were especially important because they are impeding the fight against the MS-13 gang.
"This department is especially focused on eradicating the threat posed by MS-13. Their motto is to kill, rape, control and that is what they do every day," the attorney general said. "We have a motto, too, and our motto is that: justice for criminals and justice for victims and consequences for criminals….We’re going to need the cooperation of local law enforcement officers."
Sessions’ latest salvo against sanctuary cities policies came one day after a federal judge in San Francisco turned down the Trump administration’s request to lift an injunction against an executive order President Donald Trump issued aimed at limiting federal funding for cities and countries with sanctuary policies.
Ruling in cases brought by several California localities, U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick declined to disturb the existing injunction. He said a memorandum Sessions issued purporting to limit the impact of Trump’s order did not provide a sufficient guarantee to the local governments that they wouldn’t face more aggressive enforcement of the order in the future.
"I conclude that the AG Memorandum is functionally an ‘illusory promise’ to enforce the Executive Order narrowly and, as such, does not resolve the constitutional claims that the Counties have brought based on the Order’s language," Orrick wrote.
During his speech, Sessions said nothing about the Russia controversy engulfing the Trump administration or about President Donald Trump’s statement in an interview Wednesday that if he knew Sessions would recuse himself from that investigation, he would not have nominated Sessions as attorney general.
In that same interview, Trump suggested Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wasn’t politically loyal to the administration because he’s from Baltimore, where he served as U.S. Attorney for about 12 years. However, Rosenstein doesn’t live there, isn’t a Baltimore native and actually was born in Philadelphia, as Sessions noted at the outset of his remarks Friday.
Sessions also gave a public boost to the man Trump appeared to denigrate in his interview with the New York Times.
"It’s good to be in Philadelphia. We were just discussing—our deputy Rod Rosenstein is from this area…Wharton School of Business graduate," Sessions told the audience. "He’s really a good guy."