By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. cities that refuse to step up efforts to focus on crimes committed by illegal immigrants will not be allowed to participate in a new crime reduction training program unveiled earlier this year by the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday.
In making the announcement, Sessions singled out four local police departments that had expressed interest in the new Public Safety Partnership Program, saying they first had to answer a list of questions by Aug. 18 confirming they do not have any "sanctuary" policies to shield illegal immigrants from possible deportation by ensuring they will allow federal immigration officials access to local jails.
"Cities and states with so-called 'sanctuary' policies make all of us less safe," Sessions said.
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The four police departments that must respond are Albuquerque, New Mexico; Baltimore, Maryland; and San Bernardino and Stockton, California.
"Baltimore is a welcoming city. We do not enforce federal immigration laws," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, adding that when cities were initially selected for the program, there was no formal selection process and that Baltimore does not control the local jail.
Jarrod Burguan, the police chief of San Bernardino, said his department first expressed interest in a similar program during the Obama administration, and remains interested in participating. He added San Bernardino is not a "sanctuary" city, it does not control the local jail, and he will answer the department's questions.
Representatives from the other two police departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Sessions' announcement reflects part of a broader policy push by President Donald Trump to crack down on illegal immigration.
He has urged Congress to support funding the building of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the administration has moved to dramatically widen the net of illegal immigrants targeted for deportation.
The National Public Safety Partnership is a program launched in June that involves a three-year initiative geared toward areas with high rates of violent crime.
Twelve cities were selected when it was first launched.
Some municipalities have pushed back against the Trump administration's immigration policies.
A U.S. judge last month refused to remove a block on an executive order by Trump that would have withheld federal funds from sanctuary cities, which do not use municipal funds or resources to help advance the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez on Thursday called on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to stop making arrests in courthouses amid concerns it has a chilling effect on local policing and is sweeping up those with low-level misdemeanor cases.
Rachael Yong Yow, an ICE spokeswoman, said the agency's arrests are carried out "on a case-by-case basis."
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; editing by G Crosse and Lisa Shumaker)