President Donald Trump repeatedly promised to stop giving federal money to cities that refuse to cooperate with U.S. agencies trying to enforce immigration law.
But his embattled homeland security secretary recently awarded nearly $1.7 billion in grants, some related to immigration, to states and localities across the nation, including so-called sanctuary cities, according to three people with knowledge of the grants.
Kirstjen Nielsen authorized the grants despite objections of her top staff — a decision that has angered supporters who trusted Trump to make good on his campaign pledge.
“If you want to cut off sanctuary cities, then cut them off,” said Ralph King, a Trump supporter in Bedford, Ohio, who co-founded the national conservative group, Main Street Patriots. “If you don’t want to enforce the federal laws of this country ... you don’t get the federal funding.”
Homeland Security officials said Tuesday that Nielson was bound by a nationwide court order that instructs the federal government not to withhold funding. Despite that, her top aides urged her in the day leading up to the awarding of the grants not to include the money for sanctuary cities, according to the three people, two of whom used to work at the department and remain in close contact with employees.
"This is typical of Nielsen," one person said. "She is known for deliberately ignoring warnings that her decisions are not in keeping with the president’s agenda, but that she proceeds forcefully and simply misrepresents what she is doing."
A DHS official said the secretary could not lawfully withhold funding.
The grant money, available annually, is essentially set aside for localities, who apply to Homeland Security to spend the money on specific expenses. If any localities were going to be excluded for being sanctuary cities or for other reasons, it would have been done so already, according to the three people.
County Counsel James R. Williams confirmed Santa Clara County, Calif. — a sanctuary area — continues to apply for DHS grant funding, including emergency preparedness grants, after the county and others sued the Trump administration.
"It's frustrating for officers and agents who work to support localities not supporting them," said one of the former employees who has heard complaints about sanctuary cities funding from those in the department.
A series of lawsuits involving the funding of sanctuary cites are pending. So far, judges have disagreed on whether to allow the administration to withhold federal money. In March, a federal judge in Northern California allowed Trump to withhold grants. In April, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a nationwide injunction against cutting off grants to sanctuary cities. That ruling followed a separate California case that first issued a similar ban. The Trump administration is asking a court to overturn the nationwide injunction on grants.
Immigration groups following the issue say the administration never asked Congress to exclude sanctuary cities. Messages left for the House and Senate appropriations homeland security subcommittees were not returned.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said proposals to exclude sanctuary cities from DOJ grants came from lawmakers, specifically Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee that controls the department's budget.
"If the administration wants to impose meaningful consequences for sanctuaries, which I think would be good policy, then they need to start working with congressional appropriators to establish the process," Vaughan said.
Vaughan said she doesn't know whether the administration is not following through for legal reasons or because Nielsen is failing on "one of the important priorities of the White House."
Trump has repeatedly criticized Nielsen, who was a DHS staffer and adviser under President George W. Bush, for not acting forcefully enough on immigration issues, according to published reports.
Nielson was nominated to be DHS secretary at the recommendation of John Kelly, who ran the Homeland Security department before he became White House chief of staff. In recent administrations, the DHS secretary's main contact at the White House has been the homeland security adviser. But Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton, pushed out Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert last month. The job remains vacant.
In one of his first acts as president, Trump signed an executive order that called for the DHS secretary and attorney general to use their discretion to ensure that jurisdictions that refuse to comply with federal law are not eligible to receive grants. But the language was vague.
DHS announced the grants last week but did not respond last week to subsequent requests for comment from McClatchy. Department officials alerted members of Congress though, some of whom touted the money in statements.
Rep. Dan Donovan, a Republican from New York who attended Trump's roundtable last week on immigration, said New York City will receive hundreds of millions of dollars to combat terrorism and other purposes. "Threats are increasing in both number and sophistication, and today’s news ensures that those on our frontline of defense have the resources they need to defend New Yorkers," he said.
Dozens of cities, counties and states are considered sanctuary jurisdictions, including places in California, Washington, Florida, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Kansas, as well as major cities, including New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Last year, the Trump administration stopped treating Florida’s Miami-Dade County as a sanctuary city after it agreed to detain inmates sought for deportation.
Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a policy group that seeks to reduce immigration, said he's not surprised the administration hasn't worked harder to defund sanctuary cities since several court cases are pending but, he said, it "does sound a bit like backing down."
Trump campaigned in 2016 on cracking down on immigration, including punishing sanctuary cities, as a way to pressure them to help the federal government catch and deport immigrants in the United States illegally.
"We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths. Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars," he said in 2016.
Trump has continued to talk about the issue, recently hosting a roundtable with California law enforcement officials who oppose the state's sanctuary policies.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also been vocal about what he calls "radical" sanctuary policies, suing California in part over the issue.
"It's campaign rhetoric running into the wall of reality," said a former Trump administration official. "It's not quite so simple."
[This story has been updated to make more clear that Nielson was bound by a court order to continue awarding grants to sanctuary cities while courts are deliberating lawsuits and appeals. DHS did not respond to McClatchy's May 22 request to discuss the issue]
Emily Cadei in Washington contributed.