“President Trump shouldn’t invite us to the White House for a meeting on infrastructure and three hours before issue the equivalent of what are arrest warrants for standing up for what we believe in and, by the way, what America believes in,” said Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday that the mayors should take their criticisms to Congress. “The White House has been very clear that we don’t support sanctuary cities, we support enforcing the law and following the law,” Ms. Sanders said.
The protest by the mayors adds a local dimension to a roiling national debate over the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration agenda.
The 23 jurisdictions that were issued a letter demanding documents include cities in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Vermont and Washington, and the state of Oregon.
The Justice Department contacted those local governments last year over concerns that they had violated a federal statute that says they must not restrict communications with federal authorities about citizenship or immigration status.
In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Sessions reiterated that those local governments would lose federal funding if they violated that statute. The sentiment was echoed by a senior Justice Department official who said the department was taking a step to ensure that communities that accepted federal tax money were complying with federal law.
The official would not say what would happen if local governments ignored Mr. Sessions’s letter and fought the subpoena in court, but he said he was optimistic that the jurisdictions would comply with the request for documents.
The strong backlash from mayors made it seem unlikely that the local politicians would work amicably with the Trump administration on the issue. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, who said he had traveled to Washington to attend the White House meeting but canceled on his way to the capital, called the administration’s decision to release the letter on the day Mr. Trump was to meet with a group of mayors “premeditated” and “incoherent.”
As Mr. Trump was set to meet with the mayors who did not cancel, Mr. de Blasio stood in the Capital Hilton and pointedly challenged the White House response, issued through Ms. Sanders, that the mayors who canceled should take up their complaints with Congress.
“They’re simply trying to demonize immigrants as part of their current congressional strategy,” Mr. de Blasio said. “That’s what that says to me, if that’s the game they’re playing.”
The White House, for its part, characterized the decision by Mr. de Blasio and others not to attend as a stunt, and some mayors still chose to meet with Mr. Trump.
“The mayors who choose to boycott this event have put the needs of criminal, illegal immigrants over law-abiding America,” Mr. Trump said, adding that Democrats were responsible for decades of decay within cities.
Mr. Trump campaigned on promises to dramatically restrict immigration, and Mr. Sessions has taken a hard line on the issue since his days as an Alabama senator. Since Mr. Trump took office, both men have focused on sanctuary cities, which generally refuse to hold people on immigration agents’ behalf without a warrant from a judge, accusing such places of flouting the law and helping convicted criminals evade deportation.
Local officials counter that separating local law enforcement from federal immigration authorities is good policy both legally — they have previously faced lawsuits over honoring immigration detention requests — and from a public safety standpoint, making immigrants more likely to report crimes and serve as witnesses.
Over the past year, the local jurisdictions have pushed back hard on the administration’s attempts to force them to abandon their stance by cutting off federal funding to them, with some like Chicago filing lawsuits against the Justice Department.
Mr. Emanuel’s office has called the Justice Department’s actions “misguided.” And district court judges in California and Illinois have filed preliminary nationwide injunctions blocking the department from denying grant money to sanctuary cities.
On Wednesday, 15 attorneys general filed a brief in support of the Chicago lawsuit, saying that the administration’s efforts to pull federal funds from sanctuary jurisdictions infringes on their right to set their own law enforcement policies.
“The Trump administration cannot strip a city or a police department of these critical funds, simply because they don’t like its policies,” Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, said in a statement.
“President Trump and the D.O.J. do not have the authority to unilaterally transform state and local police into federal immigration agents — or to force a city or state to decide between vital law enforcement grants and the policies they know are necessary to protect public safety,” Mr. Schneiderman said.
The letters to the 23 jurisdictions were sent nearly a week after Senate Democrats asked the departments of Justice and Homeland Security for more information about whether the administration would criminally charge local politicians over local laws that create protections for immigrants.
The Justice Department official emphasized that the department was fighting to enforce a statute enacted during the Obama administration. He added that the letters were sent after a review conducted by the department’s inspector general, which had evaluated whether many jurisdictions were still eligible for federal dollars based on their compliance with the statute.
Based on the review, the department determined that it needed to require nearly two dozen jurisdictions to produce documents related to information sharing with federal immigration agents, including details about their local laws and anything pertaining to policies or practices that could restrict information sharing.
Several of the local officials whom the Justice Department had targeted were blindsided by the letters and had not received them before the government announced them.
“The Trump administration is once again threatening California and local jurisdictions because we are invoking our constitutionally protected right to protect our resources and the honest, hardworking people who are critical to our economy,” said Kevin de León, the leader of the California State Senate. “No number of threatening letters will change the fact that we are in compliance with federal law, nor will we be bullied or intimidated into betraying our immigrant community.”
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