Still Subsidizing Sanctuaries

DOJ sends millions to jurisdictions that undermine federal law and public safety

By Jessica M. Vaughan and Nathan Desautels on July 13, 2023

Listen to the accomapanying podcast here.

Jessica Vaughan is the director of policy studies and Nathan Desautels is an intern at the Center for Immigration Studies. 

In 2021, the Department of Justice gave out approximately $300 million to sanctuary jurisdictions under three funding programs — the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAG), and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. The awards to sanctuaries represented more than 40 percent of the available funding under these programs. Sanctuary jurisdictions are receiving this funding despite having adopted policies to hinder cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities. As a result, the federal government is subsidizing agencies that may be violating federal law and undermining public safety.

Key Findings:

  • Nearly $300 million was awarded to sanctuary jurisdictions in 2021, representing 43 percent of all of the funding awarded in the SCAAP, Byrne JAG, and COPS funding programs.
  • Eleven sanctuary state agencies and 86 localities that have sanctuary policies or are located within sanctuary states received funding in 2021.
  • State agencies in California, which has one of the most egregious state sanctuary laws, received $82 million in DOJ grants — not counting tens of millions in additional funding for individual cities and counties in the state.
  • Among localities, the biggest recipients were Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
  • The majority of SCAAP and Byrne JAG program funding went to sanctuary jurisdictions in 2021; 58 percent of the SCAAP funding and 68 percent of the Byrne JAG funding went to sanctuaries, while 28 percent of the COPS funding went to sanctuaries.

The Center for Immigration Studies has identified nearly 300 states and localities that have adopted sanctuary policies.1 These cities, counties, and states have laws, ordinances, regulations, resolutions, policies, or other practices that obstruct immigration enforcement and shield criminals from ICE — either by refusing to or prohibiting agencies from complying with ICE detainers, imposing unreasonable conditions on detainer acceptance, denying ICE access to interview incarcerated aliens, or otherwise impeding communication or information exchanges between their personnel and federal immigration officers.

Certain of these policies have been found to be a violation of federal law (8 USC 1373 and 1644), which says that no state or local government may prohibit or in any way restrict local officials from communicating with federal immigration authorities about a person’s immigration status.2

Our analysis examines three DOJ grant programs: the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), the Edward M. Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG), and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The purpose of SCAAP is to reimburse state and local prisons and jails for a portion of the cost of incarcerating illegal aliens who were held on state and local charges.3 The Byrne JAG program is the leading source of federal justice funding that goes directly to state and local jurisdictions for a range of activities, including prosecution and law enforcement.4 The COPS grant program provides funding for community policing efforts in localities around the country.5

These DOJ programs are among the largest sources of federal funding for state and local law enforcement agencies. Longstanding eligibility rules require that recipients must be in compliance with all federal laws. Beginning in 2016, congressional appropriators and Justice Department officials stipulated that this included the provisions in federal law that prohibit certain sanctuary policies, and took steps to block certain jurisdictions from receiving funds under these programs.6 Several jurisdictions moved to change their policies, including Miami-Dade County in Florida, and others refused to change, but were blocked from certain DOJ funding programs. A series of lawsuits ensued, with varying outcomes, resulting in an attempted appeal to the Supreme Court, which dismissed the cases as moot7 after the incoming Biden administration rescinded the rules barring sanctuaries.8

This report examines the distribution of SCAAP, Byrne JAG, and COPS funding to sanctuary jurisdictions in 2021, which are presented in Table 1. The award amounts and total available funds are compiled from publicly available award announcements on the Justice Department web site.9

Table: Department of Justice Funding of Sanctuary Jurisdictions, 2021
Table: Top 10 Sanctuary Localities for DOJ Funding
  • SCAAP awards are granted to both state and county corrections agencies. In sanctuary states, both state and county totals are compiled. Those counties that have sanctuary policies above and beyond the state policy are itemized to show their totals, while all other counties within a sanctuary state are compiled under “All Other Localities”. In states that do not have state-wide sanctuary policies, only the unique sanctuary counties’ awards are itemized.
  • Byrne JAG grants are disclosed according to state allocations, which are then distributed within the state. Only sanctuary state totals are itemized here, as local allocations could not be readily determined.
  • COPS grants are awarded to municipal, county, tribal, and state entities, as well as to a few non-governmental organizations. Only state, county, and municipal grants were counted. Awards to unique local sanctuary jurisdictions and also municipalities within sanctuary states were counted, as were certain municipalities that are tied to county sanctuary policies.

Nearly $300 million went to sanctuary jurisdictions in 2021 from these three federal law enforcement grants alone. This total represents a substantial level of federal grant funding going toward jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with or deliberately hinder federal immigration enforcement. Considering that nearly all of the federal immigration enforcement within the country is directed at removing aliens who have committed crimes, and who are quite likely to re-offend if allowed to remain in the community, the sanctuary policies undeniably are undermining public safety and undercutting the effectiveness of the DOJ programs from which they receive funding. According to one government report, about 25 percent of criminal alien offenders who were released by sanctuary jurisdictions were subsequently arrested again within eight months of release.10

Sanctuary policies tend to attract illegal migration and provide a haven for illegal aliens involved in crime. Several drug dealers interviewed for a recent San Francisco Chronicle investigative story on the involvement of illegal aliens from Honduras in the city’s drug trade confirmed as much, telling the reporters that Honduran illegal migrants flock to the city in large part because they know that the city’s sanctuary policies will help them avoid deportation: “The reason is because, in San Francisco, it’s like you’re here in Honduras. The law, because they don’t deport, that’s the problem. ... Many look for San Francisco because it’s a sanctuary city. You go to jail and you come out.”11

Now, instead of requiring awardees to demonstrate that they are in compliance with the federal law on sanctuary policies, DOJ has begun requiring recipient agencies to provide information on their adherence to certain Biden administration policing policy preferences. For instance, to receive a Byrne JAG grant, since January 2022 law enforcement agency applicants must complete a questionnaire seeking attestations on matters such as the agencies’ use of force policies, “policies and/or procedures that incorporate best practices on officer hiring, recruitment, and retention to include diversity, equity, and inclusion”, and efforts to address racial, ethnic, gender, and LGBTQIA bias.12

While it may not be possible for the federal government to compel state and local governments to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, it is reasonable for the federal government to try to discourage sanctuary policies and penalize jurisdictions that choose to obstruct such a legitimate and vital federal activity. The limits on a president’s authority to do so have yet to be fully defined in the courts, but in the meantime Congress certainly has the authority to impose conditions on federal funding programs that could block access for sanctuary jurisdictions. In addition, the existence of sanctuary policies should be recognized by the federal government, citizens, and other stakeholders as a potential risk factor on the same level as other governance considerations, for example when issuing bond credit ratings or other assessments of a state or local government’s stability. Finally, state governments can take action to penalize or prohibit local sanctuary policies, as Texas, Florida, and eight other states have done.

End Notes

1 Jessica M. Vaughan and Bryan Griffith, “Sanctuary Cities, Counties and States”, Center for Immigration Studies, updated June 9, 2023.

2 8 U.S. Code § 1373 - Communication between government agencies and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

3 ”State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP)”, Bureau of Justice Assistance, updated April 22, 2021.

4 ”Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program”, Bureau of Justice Assistance, updated June 30, 2023.

5 ”About the COPS Office”, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, DOJ, undated.

6 See Jessica M. Vaughan, “House Appropriations Boss Initiates Crackdown on Sanctuaries”, Center for Immigration Studies, February 1, 2016; Jessica M. Vaughan, “Justice Department Agrees To End Subsidies for Sanctuaries”, Center for Immigration Studies, February 25, 2016; and Jessica M. Vaughan, “AG Sessions Set to Block Millions in Funding to Sanctuaries”, Center for Immigration Studies, July 27, 2017.

7 Lawrence Hurley, “U.S. Supreme Court dismisses ‘sanctuary’ funding dispute”, Reuters, March 5, 2021.

8 “Legal Notices”, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, April 22, 2021.

9 For SCAAP: “BJA FY 2021 State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) Award Details”, Bureau of Justice Assistance, DOJ, undated; For Byrne JAG: “Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, 2021”, Bureau of Justice Assistance, DOJ, June 2022; For COPS: “Community Policing Development (CPD) Program”, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, DOJ.

10 “Declined Detainer Outcome Report”, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, October 8, 2014, published in Jessica M. Vaughan, “Rejecting Detainers, Endangering Communities”, Center for Immigration Studies, July 13, 2015.

11 Megan Cassidy and Gabrielle Lurie, “This is the hometown of San Francisco’s Drug Dealers”, San Francisco Chronicle, July 10, 2023.

12 “Accountability Performance Measures Questionnaire”, Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, revised December 2021.