By Julia Edwards Ainsley and Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice threatened on Friday to cut off funding to California as well as eight cities and counties across the United States, escalating a Trump administration crackdown on so-called "sanctuary cities" that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
President Donald Trump has vowed to cut off federal funds to dozens of state and local governments that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration agents, arguing that they are putting public safety at risk when they do not hand over illegal immigrants suspected of crime for possible deportation.
"Sanctuary cities" in general offer safe harbor to illegal immigrants and often do not use municipal funds or resources to advance the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Many of these localities say they do not have the funding or space to hold illegal immigrants until federal agents can apprehend them.
Those threatened include: the state of California; New York City; Chicago; Philadelphia; Clark County, Nevada; New Orleans; Miami Dade County, Florida, and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Cook County, Illinois also received a warning, even though it did not get money from the Justice Department last year.
The jurisdictions until June 30 to provide evidence to the federal government that they are not violating any laws.
At stake is roughly $29 million in federal law-enforcement aid under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which helps local governments pay for everything from forensics labs to drug courts.
The grants in question are among the largest handed out under the program, collectively amounting to 11 percent of the $256 million distributed under the program in the last fiscal year.
In a statement, the Justice Department singled out Chicago and New York as two cities that are "crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime," even though New York City is experiencing its lowest crime levels in decades and experts say Chicago's recent spike in violent crime has little to do with illegal immigration.
That drew a defiant response from several cities.
"New York is the safest big city in the country, with crime at record lows in large part because we have policies in place to encourage cooperation between NYPD and immigrant communities," said Seth Stein, a spokesman for New York City mayor Bill DiBlasio.
A spokeswoman for the California Board of State and Community Corrections said some of the funding in question has been distributed to local communities after emergencies in the past, including San Bernardino after a mass shooting there in 2015.
Officials in Philadelphia, Milwaukee County and Cook County said they believed they were complying with immigration laws.
"Milwaukee County has its challenges but they are not caused by illegal immigration. My far greater concern is the proactive dissemination of misinformation, fear, and intolerance," said Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union, told Trump in a meeting last month that they were concerned the cuts could threaten public safety.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley and Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg and Joseph Ax in New York, Tom James in Seattle and Chris Kenning in Chicago Editing by Sandra Maler)