U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Baltimore officials Thursday that if the city wants to participate in a new federal crime-fighting program, they must cooperate with Trump administration immigration enforcement efforts that the state attorney general says could be unconstitutional, at a jail they do not control.
The state, not the city, operates the Baltimore city jail. And Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh has issued an opinion that honoring so-called administrative detainers — requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that individuals suspected of immigration violations be held for up to 48 hours after they're scheduled to be released — could violate their constitutional rights.
In a letter sent Thursday to Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, the Department of Justice asked Baltimore and three other cities to show that they will honor the requests if they want to participate in the new Public Safety Partnership program.
"The Department of Justice is committed to supporting our law enforcement at every level, and that's why we're asking 'sanctuary' jurisdictions to stop making their jobs harder," Sessions said in a statement.
Neither Davis nor the Police Department controls when the city jail holds or releases detainees. The facility is run by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
In 2014, then-Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, sharply limited the circumstances under which the jail would honor ICE detainers. A spokesman for the public safety department said Thursday they are now being considered "on a case-by-case basis."
The city jail has not received such a request since January 2015. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's office declined to comment.
Frosh, a Democrat, has warned jails that if they hold individuals past their release date without a judicial warrant, they could be sued for unlawful detention under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
"Local officials who hold someone solely on the basis of having received a detainer request risk civil liability, including monetary damages and attorneys fees," Frosh wrote in a guidance memo in May.
Baltimore would be a candidate for the Public Safety Partnership, the Justice Department wrote in its letter, because the city has a level of violence that exceeds the national average, is taking steps to reduce violent crime, and is "ready to receive the intensive assistance the Department is prepared to provide."
It's not clear if Baltimore has asked to join the partnership program, or what benefits the program would provide the city. The letter was sent to officials in Baltimore, Albuquerque, N.M., and San Bernardino and Stockton, Calif.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, asked about the letter Thursday, said it was clear that Sessions "does not understand who controls immigration in our city. As you all well know, we don't even control the jails here. That's a state issue, so perhaps he'll get some more information and learn how the process takes place in the state of Maryland, especially Baltimore City."
Davis said Baltimore police officers do not enforce federal immigration laws, but the department does honor criminal arrest warrants obtained by federal authorities.
Davis said in a statement that he did not know how the Justice Department was choosing cities to participate in the Public Safety Partnership.
"We remain unaware of any formal selection process, but are now aware that federal immigration enforcement criteria appears to be a primary consideration," Davis said.
Davis said Baltimore is "a welcoming city," and his officers do not ask people about their immigration status.
A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to several questions about the Public Safety Partnership, including the timeline for adding cities, how many might be added and whether Baltimore was being considered.
The Trump administration launched the partnership in June to provide what officials called "an innovative framework" for the federal government to help cities struggling with violent crime.
The Department of Justice will work with cities "to identify and prioritize resources that will help local communities address their violent crime issues."
Baltimore was not among the 12 cities initially selected for the partnership, but the Justice Department has said it anticipates announcing additional sites later this year.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.