WASHINGTON — The White House considered a plan to release detained immigrants into “sanctuary cities,” three people familiar with the idea confirmed Friday — a plan that critics branded as an effort to use migrants as pawns to go after political opponents.
The idea of pressing immigration authorities to embrace the plan was discussed in November and then again in February as the Trump administration struggled with a surge of migrants at the border, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to outline private conversations. Department of Homeland Security lawyers quickly rejected the proposal, according to the people, and it was dropped.
So-called sanctuary cities are places where local authorities do not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, denying information or resources that would help ICE round up people living in the country illegally. They include New York City and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco.
The plan, which was first reported by the Washington Post, is one of many ideas considered by the White House in recent months as President Donald Trump has railed against an ever-increasing number of Central American migrant families crossing the southern border. Officials are at the limits of what they can do, and have proposed and recycled numerous ideas that have never come to fruition. Trump and his aides have recently been discussing forcing asylum-seeking families to choose between whether they want to be detained together as their cases make their way through the courts, or are willing to send their children to government-run shelters.
There were at least two versions of the sanctuary city plan that were considered. One would have moved people who had already been detailed and were being held elsewhere to places with Democratic opponents of the president, while the other would have transported migrants apprehended at the border directly to San Francisco, New York City, Chicago and other spots.
Revelation of the idea drew immediate condemnation on Friday from Democrats, including Pelosi, whose district in San Francisco was among Trump’s targets.
“The extent of this administration’s cynicism and cruelty cannot be overstated,” said Pelosi spokeswoman Ashley Etienne. “Using human beings — including little children — as pawns in their warped game to perpetuate fear and demonize immigrants is despicable, and in some cases, criminal.”
The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said any such plan should be condemned. He criticized the idea of using ICE or any other federal agency “to penalize” or “for political reasons.”
“That’s not the act of a democratic government,” he said.
A Homeland Security spokesperson played down the reported idea, saying it was “floated and rejected, which ended any further discussion.” A White House official also said the idea was “floated and rejected.”
ICE Deputy Director Matt Albence denied that the White House pressured immigration officials to implement the idea.
“I was asked my opinion and provided it, and my advice was heeded,” he said in a statement.
ICE is tasked with arresting people living in the country illegally — including some who have been here for decades. Under the Trump administration, ICE has stepped up arrests, including of people who have no U.S. criminal records.
In response, some cities have banished ICE from jails where agents could easily pick up immigration violators. Police in New York, Baltimore and Seattle rarely, if ever, give out information on when suspected criminals in the U.S. illegally will be released from custody.
During his tenure at the Justice Department, Trump’s former Attorney General Jeff Sessions went after sanctuary cities, threatening to cut off their federal funding.
ICE arrested 32,977 people accused of crimes and 20,464 for immigration violations during the budget year 2018. There were 105,140 arrests of people with criminal convictions and 158,581 arrests overall. The most frequent criminal conviction was for drunken driving, followed by drug and traffic offenses.
By comparison, in the last budget year of the Obama administration, there were 94,751 people arrested with convictions, 6,267 arrests of those with pending charges and 9,086 on immigration violations. There were 111,104 arrests overall.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.