Providence unlikely a ‘sanctuary city’ under Trump administration’s ‘narrow’ definition

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions has unveiled the first official definition of “sanctuary cities” – and Providence doesn’t appear to make the cut.

In a memo released Monday, Sessions said he is defining sanctuary jurisdictions as places that “willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373,” a provision in federal law that bans communities from prohibiting or restricting the sharing of immigration information with federal immigration officers.

Providence doesn’t allow its police officers to question individuals about their immigration status, but there is no ordinance on the books that prohibits city employees – including cops – from sharing information with the federal government if they do learn that a person is in the country illegally.

In January, President Trump issued an executive order threatening to strip sanctuary cities of federal grants, but he stopped short of offering a clear definition of the term. In the memo, Sessions acknowledged his definition is “narrow,” but said any communities that wish to apply for certain federal grants must certify that they comply with the law.

“After consultation with Secretary of Homeland Security, I have determined that, for the purposes of enforcing the executive order, the term ‘sanctuary jurisdiction’ will refer only to the jurisdictions that ‘willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373,” Sessions wrote.

In Providence, Mayor Jorge Elorza has repeatedly referred to the city as a sanctuary for immigrants while also maintaining that it fully complies with federal immigration laws. He has traveled to Washington, D.C., twice in the last two months to discuss immigration issues with officials in the Trump administration, including Sessions.

Reached late Monday, a spokesperson for Elorza said the administration’s initial review of Sessions’ memo suggests Providence is not at risk of being labeled a sanctuary city and losing federal funds.

On Tuesday Elorza issued a statement arguing that Sessions’ definition “is so narrow that there likely aren’t any sanctuary cities in the entire United States.”

“President Trump has shown a disregard for the law and has, thankfully, been consistently rebuffed by the courts,” he said. “In Providence, we will continue to oppose all of his policies that unjustly and illegally target the most vulnerable.”

While city officials say Providence does comply with federal law, they also acknowledge police officers don’t go out of their way to assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When individuals are arrested in Providence, their fingerprints are entered into a database that ICE can access. But there is no law requiring the city to directly notify ICE when a person in the country illegally has been arrested. And the city only agrees to detain immigration violators if ICE officials secure a warrant from a judge.

What remains unclear is whether the proposed Community Safety Act would result in Providence being labeled a sanctuary city.

One provision in the CSA would prohibit cops from inquiring about an individual’s immigration status – a policy that is already in place in the police department. Another section of the ordinance blocks cops from complying “with requests by other agencies to support or assist in operations conducted solely for the purpose of enforcing federal civil immigration law.”

But the CSA goes on to state that nothing “prohibits or restricts any official from sending to, or receiving from federal immigration authorities, information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of an individual pursuant to Sections 1373 and 1644 of Title 8 of the United States Code.”

In his memo, Sessions warned that nothing limits the Department of Justice’s “ability to point out ways that state and local jurisdictions are undermining our lawful system of immigration or to take enforcement action where state or local practices violate federal laws, regulations or grant conditions.”

Sessions also hinted that the Justice Department “may seek to tailor grants to promote a lawful system of immigration,” a threat that could prevent the city from securing certain federal grants in the future.

Providence received $2.7 million in Justice Department grants between 2013 and 2016, according to an Eyewitness News review of federal grants awarded to the city. In 2016, the city received $122,000 through the department’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, $495,000 for community policing and $16,000 for transitional housing for victims of domestic violence.

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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