COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Trump administration continued to ratchet up pressure on so-called sanctuary cities Monday, with yet another clear threat to withhold billions of dollars in federal funding.
What's still murky, though, is whether the federal government might consider Cincinnati a "sanctuary."
The latest threat came from Attorney General Jeff Sessions: During an unannounced appearance at a White House press briefing, he said jurisdictions applying for Justice Department grants must comply with federal immigration law if they want access to some $4.1 billion in funds -- implying sanctuary jurisdictions would be ineligible.
It's not a new requirement: Sessions acknowledged he was reiterating a similar policy the Obama administration adopted last year.
But he also said cities and states that have labeled themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants should "consider carefully" their actions.
"The American people are not happy with these results," he said. "They know that when cities and states refuse to help enforce immigration laws, our nation is less safe. Failure to deport aliens who are convicted of criminal offenses puts whole communities at risk, especially immigrant communities in the very sanctuary jurisdictions that seek to protect the perpetrators."
Though Mayor John Cranley declared Cincinnati a sanctuary city in January, it is unclear if Cincinnati would be ineligible for the grants.
The Trump administrations's first list highlighting so-called sanctuary cities, published last week, did not include any place in Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana.
And though Cincinnati police are told not to target people specifically because they might be undocumented, department policy also explicitly states officers should cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Complicating the matter? There's no real legal definition of what constitutes a "sanctuary" jurisdiction.
The federal law Sessions cited -- the same one President Donald Trump used in his executive order on the subject -- says cities and states can't limit or stop their employees from talking with ICE about a person's immigration status. Cranley says Cincinnati does not violate federal law, and so the city isn't in danger of losing access to federal funds.
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Monday was hardly the first time the debate over sanctuary cities has come up in recent months.
Earlier this year, state Rep. Candice Keller, R-Middletown, announced plans to introduce legislation barring sanctuary cities during a joint call with Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. That bill would also would have left leaders who declared their cities as sanctuaries to be liable for any crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
But nearly two months later, Keller hasn't formally introduced her legislation to the General Assembly.
Not long after Keller and Mandel unveiled their joint effort, state Rep. Stephanie Howse, D-Cleveland, and Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorrain, unveiled their plan to make Ohio a sanctuary state. Similarly, that bill has not been introduced two months after it was announced.
In an interview with WCPO, Ramos said he and Howse still plan on bringing it up in the future.
Ramos also called Sessions' comments "a little surprising."
"It shouldn't be, but it is that this party that seems to care so much about states' rights and care so much about the Constitution seems to be so willing to ignore it when it fits their political persuasion," Ramos said.
Local law enforcement has to worry about issues such as the opioid epidemic, he said, and should not become involved in federal immigration matters.
Ramos also argued Sessions is overstepping his bounds in threatening to cut grants while requiring local police to defend federal immigration law.
"Attorney General Sessions is not in charge of the Ohio House of Representatives, he's not in charge of the sheriff's departments, he's not the mayor of all of these cities, he’s not the governor," Ramos said. "He’s the attorney general of the United States. That's a very important, very respectful thing, but that doesn't mean he's in charge of every single person who's in law enforcement in the entire United States. No person is."
WCPO.com's Joe Rosemeyer and the Associated Press contributed to this report.