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Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks at the National Sheriffs’ Association Winter Legislative and Technology Conference


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Sheriff Hall, for that kind introduction.  And thank you to the National Sheriffs’ Association for inviting me to your conference.  We are grateful for the work that you all do every single day to keep our communities safe.

The highest priority of the Department of Justice — and I know it is your highest priority as well — is the safety of the American people.  That is our charge, and we are fully committed to meeting it. The very first duty of government is to protect the safety of its citizens.

At the top of our list is continuing – indeed, escalating – our efforts to combat violent crime.  As you all know, the way we accomplish this is in a partnership, shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s sheriffs and other state and local law enforcement agencies.

Through our Joint Task Forces and such initiatives as our newly-inaugurated, nationwide Project Guardian – targeting violent gun offenders – we are continuing to reduce the level of violent crime.  I am committed to pressing this joint work forward.

I also want you to know that this administration is doing everything we can to support local law enforcement.  Just last month, we implemented President Trump’s Executive Order directing us to establish the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.  This is the first commission on law enforcement since President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission in 1965, and I think we can all agree that it is long overdue.  The nature of crime and the challenges facing our heroic police officers have changed dramatically since the 1960s, and I look forward to our Commission studying those challenges and developing strategies to combat them.

These efforts are important because, as everyone in this room knows, few callings are more essential to the strength and prosperity of our nation than that of law enforcement.  It is the rule of law that is fundamental to ensuring both freedom and security, and it is our more than 900,000 men and women on the beat who, every single day, uphold the rule of law.  I have said it many times:  there is no calling in America more noble than serving as a police officer.

At the same time, law enforcement faces more and greater challenges than ever before.  Just last weekend, someone shot two New York police officers less than 12 hours apart in what appear to be premediated assassination attempts.  These attacks are heinous.  They are horrifying.  And they come against a backdrop of cynicism and disrespect toward law enforcement that has propelled a cycle of violence and distrust between police officers and the communities they serve.

This is a very disturbing trend.  Without trust between the public and the police, all of us will be less safe.  It is therefore incumbent on everyone to work together to reverse this trend.  We must all work tirelessly to ensure that the public has confidence in the police who protect them, and that our police officers understand how much we value their dedicated public service. 

Nor are these the only challenges police officers face today.  In addition to the changing nature of crime and the rise of anti-police sentiments in some communities, our officers must confront a wave of social problems, such as homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness – problems that demand solutions beyond their authority and expertise.  It puts tremendous strain on men and women in law enforcement when we ask them to do the work of social workers at the same time that they are charged with protecting the public from dangerous criminals.

Another aspect of the crime problem in this country, and one I will focus on this evening, is the challenge presented by criminal aliens.  These are individuals who enter our country – frequently illegally – and then proceed to commit crimes.  While there is no current data on the number of criminal aliens in our country — a deficit partly attributable to the local policies I will discuss this evening — the Obama Administration estimated in 2012 that there were nearly two million removable criminal aliens in the United States.  Assuming that estimate was accurate, the numbers are likely even higher today despite the Trump Administration’s consistent and concerted efforts to find and deport this criminal population.

For many decades, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the priority for immigration enforcement has been identifying these criminal aliens and deporting them from the country as soon as they are eligible for release by state and local authorities.  Those efforts are a vital part of how we keep our country safe.  Immigration enforcement is an essential part of law enforcement.

Unfortunately, in various jurisdictions, so-called "progressive" politicians are jeopardizing the public’s safety by putting the interests of criminal aliens before those of law-abiding citizens.  They have put in place policies and laws designed to thwart the ability of federal officers to take custody of these criminals and thereby help them escape back into the community.  They often proudly brand their jurisdictions as “sanctuaries,” and package their obstructive policies in idealistic and misleading rhetoric about “protecting the immigrant community.”

Under President Trump’s leadership, we have taken concrete steps to combat the dangerous and unlawful policies of so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions.  This evening, I will be announcing a set of additional actions that the Department of Justice is taking to protect the American people by ensuring the proper and lawful functioning of our nation’s federal immigration system.

Let us state the reality upfront and as clearly as possible: When we are talking about sanctuary cities, we are talking about policies that are designed to allow criminal aliens to escape.  These policies are not about people who came to our country illegally but have otherwise been peaceful and productive members of society.  Their express purpose is to shelter aliens whom local law enforcement has already arrested for other crimes.  This is neither lawful nor sensible.

It is not lawful because the Constitution vests the federal government with the sole authority to make and enforce immigration law.  For decades, Congress enacted immigration laws authorizing the removal of aliens in the United States who commit certain crimes.  Those laws have been passed by members of both political parties and signed by presidents of both political parties.  For example, in 1996, President Clinton signed into law a federal statute that prohibits restricting information sharing about aliens.                                         

Despite this long bipartisan record, some state and local politicians have developed schemes to prevent DHS both from accessing critical information about criminal aliens and taking physical custody of criminal aliens.  But that is not the proper role of local governments.

The Founding Fathers carefully divided responsibility and power between the federal government and the state governments.  The “Supremacy Clause” in Article VI of the Constitution provides that the “Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof… shall be the supreme law of the land.” 

This Clause is a vital part of our constitutional order.  Enforcing a country’s immigration laws is an essential function of the national government.  And no national government can enforce those laws properly if state and local governments are getting in the way.  While federal law does not require that “sanctuary jurisdictions” actively assist with federal immigration enforcement, it does prohibit them from interfering with our enforcement efforts.

In addition to not being lawful, these policies are not sensible.  Innocent people are routinely threatened and hurt by illegal aliens whom local jurisdictions have set free in the face of federal immigration detainers.  Each of you, your colleagues, and other law-enforcement officials in the field are being put in harm’s way by these ideologically driven policies.  And tragically, it is often the very immigrant communities that these policies are marketed as protecting who are disproportionately harmed — when criminal aliens are returned to the streets rather than removed from the country as federal law requires.

While there are many examples of the real-world damage these policies inflict, here are two stories that illustrate this terrible problem:

  • In November, ICE filed a detainer for an alien who was arrested for assaulting his own father.  The local police in New York City that had the alien in custody ignored the detainer.  So the alien was released onto the streets, and last month, he allegedly raped and killed 92-year-old Maria Fuertes, affectionately known as “abuelita,” a fixture of her Queens neighborhood.
  • In October 2017, DHS identified a convicted criminal alien with four prior removals at a city jail in Washington State.  DHS filed a detainer.  Subsequently, the alien fought with jail staff and was taken to a local medical center for treatment.  But after receiving treatment, local officials released the alien in violation of the detainer.  In January 2018, the alien was arrested and booked for murdering and dismembering his cousin. 

As everyone in this room knows, whenever a criminal is wrongly released, the lives of your officers are unnecessarily put in danger.  Consider what happened in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia.  There, an alien attempted to hit an officer with his car after he was released on bond and his detainer was not honored.  And this individual’s original arrest was not for petty offenses.  He had five outstanding warrants for a range of charges, including kidnapping and false imprisonment.

The reality is that sanctuary policies increase the already serious dangers facing police officers by putting criminals back on the streets rather than transferring those criminals to federal immigration authorities for deportation in compliance with federal law.  These policies are textbook examples of misguided ideology triumphing over commonsense law enforcement.  And it is the public and our police who pay the price.

Nor has this trend abated.  To the contrary, politicians in sanctuary jurisdictions have become even more aggressive in their attempts to interfere with federal immigration law, going beyond their refusal to share information and facilitate jail transfers.

  • King County, Washington — the County that includes Seattle — will no longer allow DHS to use the King County International Airport to deport aliens who have been ordered to leave the United States. 
  • The State of California, in an attempt to forbid the detention of aliens anywhere in its territory, recently enacted a law that prohibits the operation of private detention facilities – a blatant attempt by the State to prohibit DHS from detaining aliens, and to interfere with the ability of the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service to manage federal detainees and prisoners.
  • The State of New York recently enacted laws that seek to restrict DHS from accessing certain information about individuals who have applied for drivers’ licenses. 
  • The New York City Human Rights Commission has recently issued enforcement guidance stating that the “use of certain language, including ‘illegal alien’ and ‘illegals,’ with the intent to demean, humiliate, or offend a person or persons constitutes discrimination.”

These efforts are unlawful.  States may not regulate the presence of aliens in the United States in a way that obstructs Congress’s regulation of aliens.  Congress has decided that aliens who have no lawful right to be here should be removed, subject to certain processes and hearings.  That is particularly true for aliens who have committed crimes in the United States.  State and local governments may not stand in the way of that vital federal mission.

To be clear, while states cannot interfere with federal law enforcement, they are certainly permitted to assist the federal government with the fulfillment of federal law.  We strongly encourage local law enforcement officials like the people gathered here this evening to assist us and I know that many of the brave men and women in this room do just that — working side-by-side with DHS every single day, whether through a 287(g) partnership with DHS or otherwise.

But when state and local governments try to obstruct rather than assist federal law enforcement, we are not taking those efforts lying down.  Under President Trump, the Department of Justice has challenged the dangerous policies of self-proclaimed sanctuary jurisdictions on a variety of fronts:

  • The department sued the State of California to enjoin numerous state laws that attempted to frustrate federal immigration enforcement.  We prevailed on several of our claims in the lower courts, and we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant our request to review the remaining issues and side with us against California’s obstructionist policies.
  • About two weeks ago, we filed a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the State of California for its new law that, as I just mentioned, prohibits the federal government from detaining individuals in private detention facilities.  California has every right to decide how it wants to manage its own prisoners and detainees, but it has no authority to dictate to the federal government how it conducts federal operations.
  • We have filed legal briefs in dozens of cases at the federal, state, and local levels to defend the lawful authority of our state and local law enforcement partners to work with DHS.  We filed the most recent of these briefs about two weeks ago to support a case involving Sheriff Robert A. Nolan of Cape May County, New Jersey.
  • We have prioritized our discretionary grant programs to give preference to jurisdictions that cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts, and the Ninth Circuit has upheld our lawful authority to do so. 
  • We are continuing to fight for our authority to condition certain formula grants upon compliance with all applicable federal laws, including statutes prohibiting states from enacting laws and policies that restrict information sharing with the federal government. 
  • And we have made clear to various jurisdictions that public areas of public facilities, like courthouses in states across the country, must be accessible to federal law enforcement officers. 

This evening, I am announcing further actions the Department of Justice will take to protect the American people and allow for the proper and lawful functioning of our nation’s federal immigration system:

  • The department is filing a complaint against the State of New Jersey seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against its laws that forbid state and local law enforcement from sharing vital information about criminal aliens with DHS.
  • We are filing a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against King County, Washington, for the policy I mentioned a moment ago that forbids DHS from deporting aliens from the United States using King County International Airport.
  • Further, we are reviewing the practices, policies, and laws of other jurisdictions across the country.  This includes assessing whether jurisdictions are complying with our criminal laws, in particular the criminal statute that prohibits the harboring or shielding of aliens in the United States.
  • We are robustly supporting DHS in its effort to use all lawful means to obtain the information it needs to carry out its mission.  That includes the use of federal subpoenas to access information about criminal aliens in the custody of uncooperative jurisdictions.  We have taken and will take all appropriate action in federal court to ensure compliance with these federal subpoenas.
  • Last but not least, we are meticulously reviewing the actions of certain district attorneys who have adopted policies of charging foreign nationals with lesser offenses for the express purpose of avoiding the federal immigration consequences of those nationals’ criminal conduct.  In pursuing their personal ambitions and misguided notions of equal justice, these district attorneys are systematically violating the rule of law and may even be unlawfully discriminating against American citizens.

Today is a significant escalation in the federal government’s efforts to confront the resistance of “sanctuary cities.”  But by no means do the efforts outlined above signify the culmination of our fight to ensure the rule of law, to defend the Constitution, and to keep Americans safe.  We will consider taking action against any jurisdiction that, or any politician who, unlawfully obstructs the federal enforcement of immigration law. 


The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Department of Justice.  Learn more about the history of our agency at

Updated February 10, 2020