By Grant Smith and Kathryn Ireland, CNN
Three Republican lawmakers on Thursday pressed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Undersecretary for Management Ronald Vitiello over whether the immigration agency lied to them about the status of its Trump administration immigration policies.
In a letter to Vitiello from Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, the lawmakers claimed that they were assured by Vitiello last week that the Trump administration was not implementing “sanctuary city” policies, but it later emerged that law enforcement policies were being undermined by DHS.
According to the lawmakers, Vitiello told them last week that the policies are merely “evolving” and have “nothing to do with sanctuary cities.”
In response to a question from CNN Thursday, Vitiello responded by issuing the following statement:
“As recently as Friday, when I testified at the House and Senate Appropriations hearings, I affirmed that DHS does not have Sanctuary City policies, and that the Trump Administration is simply using term ‘sanctuary cities’ to describe jurisdictions that do not comply with federal immigration law,” he said. “As my testimony demonstrated, I made this commitment based on information available at the time. Notwithstanding that, it is imperative for the Administration to set an example on implementing all of its immigration and security policies. At the congressional hearings, the most serious issue was the immigrant status of the Honduran nationals and not immigration policy. It is therefore noteworthy that this issue has been extensively highlighted in the press and public in recent days. To be clear, our policies have not changed because of the presence of criminal aliens – they have simply evolved.”
Thursday’s letter lays out multiple encounters between the three lawmakers and Vitiello. During one sit-down, the lawmakers said they met with Vitiello at Homeland Security headquarters last Friday to talk about the agency’s policies on immigration detentions and deportation.
After Vitiello assured the lawmakers the Trump administration has no intention of implementing sanctuary city policies, he was asked “Do you have sanctuary cities policies?” To which Vitiello responded “No, sir.”
The letter continued to state that a few days after the meeting, On Feb. 13, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas asked Vitiello the same question about sanctuary cities. According to the letter, Vitiello responded, “As you know, we do not have sanctuary cities policies at DHS.”
Three days later, Cornyn tried to follow up with Vitiello, but the letter said that the first time it reached Vitiello last Thursday, “he responded that he was unaware of the ICE guidance on the issue and that he did not recall speaking with any DHS official on this topic.”
At a Feb. 22 hearing before the House Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee, Vitiello said his office had reviewed “very preliminary guidance from (DHS) headquarters” last week about sanctuary cities, and that he “cannot confirm or deny whether DHS has such a policy at the agency.” The letter continued, “You were not clear with me as to whether you had had the opportunity to review a full copy of that guidance and if so, if it was available, to which DHS headquarters agencies or components, if any, could or may have known it. We are currently investigating whether DHS misled us.”
On Wednesday, Homeland Security announced it would no longer use the term “sanctuary cities,” in place of its other policy. The department is referring to jurisdictions that do not comply with current immigration laws with ICE holds and detainer requests.
During a radio interview Thursday morning with Chris Cuomo on CNN, Riviello reiterated the administration’s policy direction on sanctuary cities.
“No question, there are folks in communities that the ICE is looking for, and they have their own objectives that they’re going after, and ICE is looking for serious people, serious criminals, and some of those folks are going to slip through the cracks on their way to being removed from this country,” he said.