Attorney General Jeff Sessions faced pushback Tuesday against the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration as a top California official warned that the White House's hardline immigration policies could undermine Sessions' goal to rein in violent crime.
The exchange came after Sessions delivered his first public speech in his new job: a call to return to a tough-on-crime approach as way to reduce the scourge of drugs and violence.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra told Sessions that the drop in crime in the past two decades in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento is due in part to the cooperation of undocumented immigrants who may be victims of or witnesses to crime.
"One of the reasons we believe we've been able to succeed in bringing crime down is because we have the cooperation of folks throughout the communities....We need to have [them] cooperate with us when crimes do occur." said Becerra, a former Democratic congressman who was appointed to fill the attorney general slot vacated by newly-elected Sen. Kamala Harris.
"We are finding, though, that some of the actions that the administration is taking with regard to enforcing immigration laws is causing a lot of fear throughout our state and people who are here without documents but are not committing crimes are beginning to fear approaching law enforcement authorities for fear that they may be also apprehended in the process of trying to be witnesses on crimes," Becerra said.
Sessions responded by alluding to the Trump administration's concerns about so-called sanctuary cities, many of which decline to advise immigration authorities when foreigners wanted by the federal government on immigration charges are set to be released from jail.
"We are having some disagreements in certain areas with state and local governments over detainers," Sessions said. "It's just to me a shocking thing that we don't have universal respect between law enforcement agencies where when one has charges the other turns over the offender to the next jurisdiction to carry out just punishment. But we'll have to wrestle with that. It's going to be a tough challenge."
So far, the administration is trying to discourage sanctuary cities by threatening their federal funding. A Jan. 25 executive order from President Donald Trump instructed federal officials to deny funding to localities with sanctuary policies, to the extent the law permits such payment cuts.
Trump's executive order was unsparing in denouncing sanctuary policies. "These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic," Trump wrote.
Sessions was more conciliatory Tuesday.
"We do not need to have a big brawl between our law enforcement agencies, if we can avoid that," he told Becerra. "I understand the argument that you've made and we've heard it before and there's a certain validity to it. But there are other countervailing arguments and principles that are at work. I think we'll do our best to be clear and firm and fair."
Sessions' anti-drug messages were particularly well received by state officials, who are struggling with a surge in use of heroin, other opiates and illicit prescription medications. The new attorney general delivered only a small fraction of his prepared remarks, which were focused on his plans to ramp up the Justice Department's crime-fighting efforts.
"Crime is going back up again," Sessions said. "Certain major cities are seeing dramatic—I mean really dramatic—increases in murder rates: Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans. There's lots of this out there that’s driving a sense that we’re in danger."
"I don't believe that the pop in crime, this increase in crime is necessarily an aberration—a one time blip. I'm afraid it represents the beginning of a trend," he added.
Sessions warned against returning to a paralysis in law enforcement in the 1960s and 1970s which he described as stemming from an attitude that "criminals were victims and victims were victims and the police were victims and everybody was victims and there wasn’t much we could do about it."
Sessions' prepared speech contained many such warnings, called for a new vigilance against crime and for greater respect for and deference to local police departments.
However, portions of the attorney general's prepared text acknowledged that many living in America's cities are less affected by the "American carnage" Trump warned about in his inaugural address than by the huge urban development boom and mass influx of millennial city-dwellers.
"Many neighborhoods that were once in the grip of gangs and drugs and violence are now vibrant places, where kids can play in the park and parents can enjoy a walk after sunset without fear," Sessions was to say, according to the text posted online. "While this spike in violent crime is not happening in every neighborhood or city, the trends should concern all of us."
Sessions did not deliver those sections of the speech.