Sen. Chris Van Hollen secured a promise from Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday to reconsider why Baltimore was excluded from a multimillion-dollar federal grant program aimed at cities struggling with violent crime.
Sessions made the concession while testifying on the Justice Department budget at a hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, is a member of the subcommittee.
“I just ask for your commitment to see if we can look for a way to see if they can qualify for the funds,” Van Hollen told Sessions.
“I would be glad to do that,” Sessions replied.
Maryland lawmakers had been trying for months to get the department to reconsider the decision.
The issue encompasses not only violent crime but also the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
Van Hollen told Sessions that Baltimore was invited last year to apply for the Public Safety Partnership — a program the department says leverages federal resources “to reduce violence in cities with the highest violent crime rates in the nation.”
Baltimore suffered 342 homicides in 2017, a record per capita, and USA Today this year declared Baltimore the nation's most dangerous big city. As a candidate, Republican Donald J. Trump made frequent reference to Baltimore's struggle with violence, describing the city as "out of control."
Lawmakers said Baltimore’s application was rejected to punish the city for enacting “sanctuary” policies. The term has no legal definition.
The Trump administration has sought to withhold federal funds from state and local authorities that, Sessions said Wednesday, “have undertaken to undo our immigration laws” by releasing “criminal aliens back into the community” when they should be processed and deported.
“We cannot continue giving federal grants to cities that actively undermine the safety of federal law officers and intentionally frustrate efforts to reduce crime in their own cities,” Sessions said in prepared testimony.
The Baltimore Sun reported last year that federal immigration agents asked the state-run Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore to hold dozens of immigrants in custody.
Van Hollen told Sessions that Baltimore City “does not have jurisdiction over the detention centers of Baltimore City. That’s a State of Maryland decision.
“I hope you’ll work with me on Baltimore City,” the senator said. “We have a violent crime problem.”
Sessions said he would consider the request.
“We have had, I think, more than one — certainly one — circumstance in which the jail was run by somebody else other than the jurisdiction,” he said. “So that created a problem and actually led to the approval of the grants. So I’d be glad to look at that.”
Democratic lawmakers from Maryland have said the Republican administration is trying to compel Baltimore to adhere to a “mass-deportation agenda.”
“Immigration enforcement is a matter for the federal government,” they wrote to Sessions last August. “State and localities should not be coerced into trying to enforce federal immigration laws or ask individuals about their immigration status.”
It is not certain how much grant money Baltimore could receive if it were accepted into the multimillion-dollar program. The department says the program provides local law enforcement authorities with “intensive technical assistance.”
Cities receiving funds include Buffalo, Cincinnati and Houston.
Last week, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago affirmed a ruling that the Justice Department couldn’t withhold public safety grants from cities because of sanctuary policies.
The suit was brought by the city of Chicago over Justice Department grants, but not specifically the Public Safety Partnership program.
The judges blocked the enforcement of certain grant conditions, such as one requiring cities to provide at least 48 hours notice to the Department of Homeland Security before releasing a suspect wanted on immigration violations.
Van Hollen told Sessions at the hearing that “I think those decisions are going to apply also to your criteria in the National Public Safety Partnership program.”
Sessions did not address that issue.