Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Bill de Blasio and Eric Garcetti were amongst those who boycotted the gathering after the Justice Department threatened to subpoena their cities. But the mayors who did attend got an earful from Trump about local immigration policy.
A number of high-profile mayors pulled out of a meeting with the White House on Wednesday afternoon after the Trump administration pledged to crack down on jurisdictions that maintain sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants.
The Justice Department threatened to subpoena 23 different cities, states, and counties with sanctuary policies that limit local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. The Justice Department is seeking records about any “directives, instructions, or guidance” to local law enforcement employees about communication with federal immigration agencies. Nine of those jurisdictions are located in California, including the state itself.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu were among the mayors to immediately withdraw from the meeting with President Donald Trump as a result. Both New York and L.A. were on the list of jurisdictions that received the surprise DOJ guidance on Wednesday.
Dozens of other mayors, however, continued with the planned meeting, where Trump opened a session that was supposed to be about infrastructure by blasting sanctuary city policies.
“The mayors who choose to boycott this event have put the needs of criminal, illegal immigrants over law-abiding America," Trump told attendees. "So let me tell you, the vast majority of people showed up."
The president’s words echoed the language heard around Capitol Hill over the weekend during the brief government shutdown spurred in large part by top-level disagreement over immigration policies. Republicans cast the shutdown as the fault of Democrats who put undocumented immigrants first.
Infrastructure, the administration’s next big legislative push, was the ostensible subject of the summit. In recent weeks the White House has indicated that its planned infrastructure bill may involve rolling back significant environmental protections. That approach didn’t surface in his remarks, although Trump said that during his State of the Union address next week, he would announce a $1.7 trillion investment in infrastructure, drawing applause from the audience. “Only mayors could be that excited,” he said.
The Justice Department’s escalation of a conflict between the federal government and local jurisdictions over local law enforcement overshadowed everything else at the meeting. Trump addressed the conflict first before moving on to other topics. “Sanctuary cities are the best friend of gangs and cartels, like MS-13,” he said. After speaking at a podium, Trump left the room without taking any questions or comments from the mayors.
The subpoena sent Wednesday before the meeting threatened to withhold grants worth millions of dollars to police departments if they do not comply with the subpoena. The Justice Department has floated the prospect of filing criminal charges against local officials over their immigration policies.
Mayors who withdrew from the meeting with Trump characterized the anti-sanctuary policies as reckless and dangerous.
“A year ago the Trump administration threatened our country. And we made very clear that that threat was unconstitutional,” said de Blasio, referring to the Justice Department’s war on sanctuary cities. “When the immigration executive order came out it was aimed at the heart of law enforcement in cities all across America. My police commissioner said at the time that we would never allow federal policies to compromise our ability to keep our people safe.”
Landrieu, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, whose winter summit drew dozens of local leaders to Washington, D.C., said in a statement that “an attack on mayors who lead welcoming cities is an attack on everyone in our conference.”
While Landrieu’s comments at first appeared to indicate that the meeting was canceled, it nevertheless continued as planned, with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry among those in attendance.
Mayors and governors of sanctuary governments disagree with the president’s disparaging characterization of their efforts. They argue instead that using local police and sheriffs to enforce immigration status leads the communities who are most helpful in the fight against gangs and terrorism to button up.
“Police forces for decades—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—have refused to ask New Yorkers for documentation status,” de Blasio said. “This is one of the reasons why immigrant New Yorkers trust the police and come forward to the police.”
During the meeting in the White House’s East Room, Trump hailed three individuals as friends: Mayor Dane Maxwell of Pascagoula, Mississippi; Mayor Betsy Price of Fort Worth, Texas; and Mayor Toni Harp of New Haven, Connecticut. When Harp—who was absent—did not stand, Trump joked that the mayor might be a “sanctuary city person,” asking, “That’s not possible, is it?”
Sarah Holder contributed reporting for this article.