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"As we stand here, we have 23 of our mayors that are now under threat of prosecution, because of something that the president has called 'sanctuary cities,'" said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
WASHINGTON — As dozens of mayors from around the U.S. gathered here Wednesday, the Justice Department threatened to take legal action against 23 local and state governments if they did not produce documents related to immigration enforcement.
The department announced the move around noon, just hours after the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual winter meeting got underway a few blocks from the White House. The episode is the latest in the debate over so-called "sanctuary cities," which has smoldered and flared since President Trump took office just over a year ago.
"As we stand here, we have 23 of our mayors that are now under threat of prosecution, because of something that the president has called 'sanctuary cities,'" New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the current president of the Conference of Mayors, said during a press conference that had been planned to focus on infrastructure.
"There is no definition in federal law for the term, 'sanctuary city.' It does not exist," Landrieu added.
The Justice Department demanded documents that could show whether each of the 23 jurisdictions are "unlawfully restricting information sharing by its law enforcement officers with federal immigration authorities." And the department said if places fail to submit timely, or complete responses, the documents would be subject to subpoena.
"We have seen too many examples of the threat to public safety represented by jurisdictions that actively thwart the federal government’s immigration enforcement," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.
Following the move by the Justice Department, Landrieu and other mayors said they would boycott an afternoon meeting with Trump at the White House. The president didn't hesitate to note their absence.
"The mayors who choose to boycott this event have put the needs of criminal illegal immigrants over law-abiding Americans," Trump said in his comments to the mayors who did attend. This echoed rhetoric the president used while sparring with Democrats during a three-day government shutdown that Congress resolved Monday.
"Sanctuary cities are the best friend of gangs and cartels," Trump added.
Landrieu argued that no mayor in the U.S. would hesitate to jail someone who had committed a violent crime, or who was endangering their community. And he said the federal government under Trump had cut public safety funding.
Trump leveled other criticisms in his remarks that were sharply partisan. While citing strong employment figures, particularly among African Americans, he said: "For a hundred years, the Democratic mayors have done a terrible—I mean, they've done some bad work."
Mayor Tom Tait, of Anaheim, California, did go for the White House visit. "I think it's always good to go and listen," Tait, a Republican who chairs a Conference of Mayors immigration task force, told Route Fifty Wednesday night. "But I understand if people didn't want to go."
"We need help from the federal government to pass comprehensive immigration reform," he later added.
Asked about the timing of the Justice Department announcement and whether actions like it threatened to undermine bipartisan cooperation between mayors, he replied: "We don't even think about partisan stuff in this conference. I have a lot of mayors I have no idea what party they're in. It's usually not even asked."
Central to the sanctuary cities controversy is part of the U.S. Code known as 8 USC 1373.
This section of law says states and localities can’t keep government agencies or officials from communicating with immigration authorities about a person’s citizenship or immigration status.
During the past year, the 8 USC 1373 provision, and the hot-button debate over immigration, have led cities and the Trump administration into a thicket of difficult legal questions.
For instance, how long a city can detain a person without probable cause or a warrant before the city runs the risk of violating the Constitution. And under what circumstances does a local government need to call and notify federal immigration authorities that a person the feds have not sought to detain will be released.
The Justice Department said Wednesday, as it has previously, that jurisdictions that fail to comply with the 8 USC 1373 statute could risk losing federal law enforcement grants.
Landrieu, a Democrat, said he had personally met at least three times with Sessions to discuss sanctuary cities and immigration matters. New Orleans is not covered by the Justice Department order. Asked if he thought the department's action was intentionally timed to disrupt the Conference of Mayors meeting, Landrieu replied: "Yes, of course."
Chicago is one of the jurisdictions the Justice Department is seeking documents from.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, who served as chief of staff in the Obama White House, suggested the department made its announcement Wednesday so the Trump administration could avoid serious conversations with visiting mayors about infrastructure.
"That is what's going on," he said. "There is no infrastructure plan and there's no resources."
Trump is expected to reveal a promised infrastructure investment proposal sometime around his State of the Union address next week.
White House officials have indicated previously that the administration is supportive of a plan that would involve $200 billion of direct federal funding, that could be combined with state, local and private dollars to reach $1 trillion of total investment.
The president told the mayors his infrastructure proposal could actually end up generating closer to $1.7 trillion in spending.
Emanuel described putting forward $200 billion to achieve the $1 trillion goal for infrastructure spending as "fairy dust."
Chicago has been engaged in legal battles with the Justice Department over immigration policy since Trump took office.
The Trump administration broke with precedent and did not invite the Conference of Mayors as a whole this year to the White House during the group's winter meeting, according to Landrieu.
Conference of Mayors executive director and CEO, Tom Cochran, said the White House told the group it would instead extend invitations to about 100 mayors.
“We said, ‘we have 250 mayors.’ They said they didn’t think they could accommodate that many,” Cochran said. “And, of course, the other presidents have accommodated that many in the East Room.”
Landrieu emphasized that the mayors on hand in the nation's capital did not all agree on a best path forward for U.S. immigration policy.
"It is worth noting, however, that if the president of the United States and Congress would do their job, we wouldn't be having this discussion at all," he added. "If they enacted comprehensive immigration reform, the country would be better off for it."
This story has been updated.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.