White House officials have tried to pressure U.S. immigration authorities to release detainees onto the streets of “sanctuary cities” to retaliate against President Trump’s political adversaries, according to Department of Homeland Security officials and email messages reviewed by The Washington Post.
Trump administration officials have proposed transporting detained immigrants to sanctuary cities at least twice in the past six months — once in November, as a migrant caravan approached the U.S. southern border, and again in February, amid a standoff with Democrats over funding for Trump’s border wall.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district in San Francisco was among those the White House wanted to target, according to DHS officials. The administration also considered releasing detainees in other Democratic strongholds.
White House officials first broached the plan in a Nov. 16 email, asking officials at several agencies whether members of the caravan could be arrested at the border and then bused “to small- and mid-sized sanctuary cities,” places where local authorities have refused to hand over illegal immigrants for deportation.
The White House told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that the plan was intended to alleviate a shortage of detention space but also served to send a message to Democrats. The attempt at political retribution raised alarm within ICE, with a top official responding that it was rife with budgetary and liability concerns, and noting that “there are PR risks as well.”
After the White House pressed again in February, ICE’s legal department rejected the idea as inappropriate and rebuffed the administration.
A White House official and a spokesman for DHS sent nearly identical statements to The Post on Thursday, indicating that the proposal is no longer under consideration.
“This was just a suggestion that was floated and rejected, which ended any further discussion,” the White House statement said.
Pelosi’s office blasted the plan.
“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.”
President Trump has made immigration a central aspect of his administration, and he has grown increasingly frustrated at the influx of migrants from Central America. He often casts them as killers and criminals who threaten U.S. security, pointing to cases in which immigrants have killed U.S. citizens — including a notable case on a San Francisco pier in 2015. And he has railed against liberal sanctuary-city policies, saying they endanger Americans.
“These outrageous sanctuary cities are grave threats to public safety and national security,” Trump said in a speech to the Safe Neighborhoods Conference in Kansas City, Mo., on Dec. 7, less than a month after the White House asked ICE about moving detainees to such cities. “Each year, sanctuary cities release thousands of known criminal aliens from their custody and right back into the community. So they put them in, and they have them, and they let them go, and it drives you people a little bit crazy, doesn’t it, huh?”
The White House believed it could punish Democrats — including Pelosi — by busing ICE detainees into their districts before their release, according to two DHS whistleblowers who independently reported the busing plan to Congress. One of the whistleblowers spoke with The Washington Post, and several DHS officials confirmed the accounts. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller discussed the proposal with ICE, according to two DHS officials. Matthew Albence, who is ICE’s acting deputy director, immediately questioned the proposal in November.
Albence declined to comment but issued a statement through a spokesman acknowledging there was a discussion about the proposal.
“As the Acting Deputy I was not pressured by anyone at the White House on this issue. I was asked my opinion and provided it and my advice was heeded,” the statement said.
DHS officials said the proposal resurfaced during the shutdown talks three months later, when Albence brought ICE attorneys into the discussion, seeking the legal review that ultimately doomed the proposal.
Miller declined to comment. His name did not appear on any of the documents reviewed by The Post. But as he is White House senior adviser on immigration policy, officials at ICE understood that he was pressing the plan.
Trump has been demanding aggressive action to deal with the surge of migrants, and many of his administration’s proposals have been blocked in federal court or, like the family separation policy last year, have backfired as public relations disasters.
Homeland Security officials said the sanctuary city request was unnerving, and it underscores the political pressure Trump and Miller have put on ICE and other DHS agencies at a time when the president is furious about the biggest border surge in more than a decade.
“It was basically an idea that Miller wanted that nobody else wanted to carry out,” said one congressional investigator who has spoken to one of the whistleblowers. “What happened here is that Stephen Miller called people at ICE, said if they’re going to cut funding, you’ve got to make sure you’re releasing people in Pelosi’s district and other congressional districts.” The investigator spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the whistleblower.
The idea of releasing immigrants into sanctuary cities was not presented to Ronald Vitiello, the agency’s acting director, according to one DHS official familiar with the plan. Last week, the White House rescinded Vitiello’s nomination to lead ICE, giving no explanation, and Vitiello submitted his resignation Wednesday, ending his 30-year-career.
The day after Vitiello’s nomination was rescinded, President Trump told reporters he wanted to put someone “tougher” at ICE. DHS officials said they do not know whether ICE’s refusal to adopt the White House’s plan contributed to Vitiello’s removal. His departure puts Albence in charge of the agency as of Friday.
The White House proposal reached ICE first in November as a highly publicized migrant caravan was approaching the United States. May Davis, deputy assistant to the president and deputy White House policy coordinator, wrote to officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security with the subject line: “Sanctuary City Proposal.”
“The idea has been raised by 1-2 principals that, if we are unable to build sufficient temporary housing, that caravan members be bussed to small- and mid-sized sanctuary cities,” Davis wrote, seeking responses to the idea’s operational and legal viability. “There is NOT a White House decision on this.”
Albence replied that such… Continue: White House proposed releasing immigrant detainees in sanctuary cities, targeting political foes