President Donald Trump has often invoked sympathy with the people of San Bernardino after the terrorist attack that happened there in 2015. Indeed, his original proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States was issued in the wake of the 2015 attack — and his former press secretary Sean Spicer used San Bernardino to justify the executive order President Trump signed in January that sought to ban people from several majority-Muslim countries.
Now, San Bernardino is asking the federal government for help: It wants to join a new federal crime-reduction program called the Public Safety Partnership, which promises cities extra training and consulting to help them reduce violent crime.
The Trump administration is balking at the request, as part of its effort to deprive “sanctuary cities” of federal assistance.
Trump’s Department of Justice sent letters to four city police departments last week — Baltimore; Albuquerque; Stockton, California; and San Bernardino — telling them they could only join the Public Safety Partnership if they certified that they helped federal immigration agents pick up immigrants from local jails, including by holding immigrants up to two days after they’d otherwise be released.
By targeting San Bernardino — in addition to Baltimore, which President Trump has often attacked as a crime-ridden hellhole but promised he could fix quickly — the administration isn’t just targeting America’s major cities in an act of culture war. It’s taking the very places that Trump and his government use to warn about “American carnage” and withholding the proffered solution — laying the groundwork to shrug at any continued violence and say it’s the city’s fault.
This isn’t a simple matter of trying to nudge cities into adopting more cooperative immigration policies by offering up federal help. It’s a sign that even though President Trump’s rhetorical exaggerations of the hellishness of America’s “inner cities” come alongside promises to fix it, his administration sees unacceptably progressive local policies as a good enough reason to withhold its aid. Intentionally or not, the Trump administration is laying the groundwork to declare that cities are irredeemable, and simply walk away.
The Trump administration is asking city police departments about policies they don’t control
The Public Safety Partnership is the latest iteration of an idea that’s motivated federal aid to local law enforcement for decades: Cities can’t always tackle their crime problems on their own, and the federal government can step in to give them the capacity to fix it.
Traditionally, that “capacity” has come in the form of money: federal grants like the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants program (which the Trump administration has already threatened to restrict based on the immigration policies of the jurisdiction applying for them). But the federal government can also provide capacity in the form of staff expertise: providing technical assistance (from collecting data to helping figure out how to build community relationships), and offering extra training for law enforcement to improve their own ability to deal with problems in the future.
During the last years of the Obama administration, the federal government offered the second model to a group of cities suffering from high crime rates under the label of the Violence Prevention Network. In June, the Trump administration formalized the effort as the National Partnership for Public Safety.
To join the partnership, the feds said, a city had to have higher-than-average levels of violence — but a “complete commitment” to combating violent crime. It picked 12 cities, from Houston, Texas, to Buffalo, New York, that fit that description — though it didn’t offer them any funds to go with the technical assistance (leaving at least one police chief from a partnership city with “a lot of questions” about how effective the partnership will ultimately be). And the feds left the door open to pick other cities throughout the rest of the year — but didn’t create any public process for selecting them.
Which made it especially weird when, last Thursday, the Department of Justice sent public letters to four police departments that had reportedly “expressed interest” in joining the Public Safety Partnership, asking them follow-up questions about their jurisdiction’s policies toward immigration enforcement in local jails.
According to the letter, signed by acting Assistant Attorney General Alan Hanson, “complete commitment to reducing violent crime” includes a “commitment to reducing violent crime stemming from illegal immigration.” And apparently, the way for cities to demonstrate that commitment is through policies allowing federal immigration agents access to all “correctional or detention” facilities; notifying immigration agents 48 hours before releasing immigrants that ICE has expressed interest in picking up; and holding such immigrants 48 hours after they’d otherwise be released, to give ICE a chance to come get them.
Policies like this are at the heart of the fight over “sanctuary cities.” Whether a city government officially declares itself a sanctuary or not matters a lot less than how much access federal immigration agents get to local criminal justice systems. Getting a database notification that a jail is holding an unauthorized immigrant, and then going to pick up that immigrant, is a lot easier (and, from the agents’ perspective, safer) than tracking down unauthorized immigrants in their communities.
In this case, the feds aren’t threatening to withhold grant money — the Public Safety Partnership doesn’t come with money, just assistance from DOJ staff. But it’s still another front in the Trump administration’s effort to use federal help to pressure local police departments into helping more with immigration enforcement.
What makes this especially weird is the targets they chose. For one thing, two of the four police departments that got letters — Stockton and San Bernardino — are part of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has ruled that it’s actually unconstitutional to force local law enforcement agents to honor requests to hold immigrants for federal pickup.
Even more importantly, though, none of the four cities targeted actually operate their own “correctional or detention facilities” to begin with. Stockton, San Bernardino, and Albuquerque all book suspects into jails run by the county; Baltimore books its suspects into a jail run by the state. So they’re now being asked to offer evidence of policies that aren’t even within their control.
In other words, if the government were trying to use partnership status as an incentive for localities to change their immigration policies, it sure picked a funny way to go about it.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
The Trump administration has justified its war on sanctuary cities by arguing that they’re simply unsafe — that allowing unauthorized immigrants to be released from jails rather than getting turned over to ICE results in uncontrollable violent crime. As a candidate, Trump blamed violence and unrest in Baltimore on gangs of “illegal immigrants” (a claim that totally baffled officials in Baltimore).
In other words, the administration implies that any city with “sanctuary” policies has only itself to blame for its crime problem — because if it were really committed to fighting crime, it would be tougher on the immigrants who supposedly fuel it.
That logic even extends to cases where it’s the federal government itself that’s being accused of making neighborhoods less safe. Whenever officials at the Department of Homeland Security have come under fire for aggressive tactics in apprehending immigrants — from home raids to arrests at courthouses — they’ve deflected the blame onto local law enforcement who won’t let agents make “safer” arrests in jails.
“If we were able to have more cooperation of getting criminal aliens through jails and prisons, we wouldn’t need to go into courthouses,” DHS spokesperson David Lapan told a group of reporters in April.
This is an explicit version of an argument that’s occasionally made by Republicans and conservatives about cities, which are often led by Democrats (though the mayors of San Bernardino and Albuquerque are both Republican). The standard argument is that since decades of Democratic leadership hasn’t done anything to fix cities like Detroit, Democrats are really the ones to blame for their continued woes.
The Trump administration, characteristically, is reflecting this argument through its keystone issue: immigration.
When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to sue the Trump administration over its threats to withhold funds to “sanctuary cities” under a different DOJ program, Department of Justice spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores accused Emanuel of “spending time and taxpayer money protecting criminal aliens and putting Chicago's law enforcement at greater risk” by having a sanctuary policy.
At the same time, of course, the hellishness of life in cities like Chicago (or Baltimore) is a staple of President Trump’s rhetoric: the heart of the “American carnage” that was the theme of his inaugural address. In other words, the Trump administration is happy to talk about how terrible these cities are — while using immigration policy to withhold resources that might help them improve.
The Baltimore Sun, in a scathing editorial written in June (when the city was excluded from the first class of the Public Safety Partnership), concluded that ”Baltimoreans shouldn’t hold their breath for a lot of help from the White House. Mr. Trump just needs a bogeyman, and we serve his purposes nicely.”
If the Partnership for Public Safety works, and the cities included in the partnership substantially reduce violent crime, the Trump administration will end up fulfilling its own prophecy by preventing “sanctuary cities” from reaping the benefits. Those cities will, in fact, end up less safe than their peers, and it will be because of their “sanctuary” policies. But instead of “sanctuary” hurting cities by forcing them to protect dangerous immigrants, it will hurt cities because the federal government isn’t protecting them.