Elorza: Feds, mayors need to speak ‘same language’ on sanctuary cities

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said Wednesday the Trump administration still hasn’t provided enough clarity on what it means to be a sanctuary city, arguing that no one in the federal government has offered a legal definition for the polarizing term.

Elorza was among several leaders within the U.S. Conference of Mayors who met behind closed doors with Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly Wednesday in Washington, D.C. He said he hopes the hour-long meeting was the “start of a dialogue.”

“If we have the same goal as the secretary with respect to taking violent criminals off the streets, then let’s figure out a way to work together,” Elorza, a Democrat, said following the meeting. “We can start by having some clarity with the use of terms so we know we’re speaking the same language.”

Wednesday’s meeting focused primarily on an executive order signed by President Trump on Jan. 25 that called for federal immigration officers to ramp up enforcement actions while also threatening to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary jurisdictions.”

No one from the Trump administration has offered a definition for sanctuary cities and no list of jurisdictions at risk of losing federal funds has been released. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has placed Providence and more than 100 other communities on a list of communities they believe “limit cooperation” with immigration officers.

Elorza has repeatedly called Providence a sanctuary city, but he has also maintained the city fully complies with federal law when it comes to immigration issues, including entering the fingerprints of anyone who is arrested into a database that is monitored by ICE.

The city refuses to hold undocumented immigrants for an extended period of time while ICE secures a warrant and police officers do not ask residents about their immigration status, two policies that lead critics to refer to Providence as a sanctuary city.

“I consider Providence a sanctuary city and the definition that I use for sanctuary city is a city that will not turn our law enforcement department into immigration agents,” Elorza said. “We do not ask about your immigration status and regardless of what the federal government does, we are not going to change that policy.”

Elorza, an attorney and former Housing Court judge, said he believes any attempt to strip communities of federal funding based on their policies around illegal immigration would be “patently unconstitutional.”

He said the mayors are planning to draft a letter with more questions for Kelly and he anticipates there will be “a lot of follow-up at the staff level.”

Kevin Dermody contributed to this report.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan