The U.S. House of Representatives took the first steps toward fulfilling two of President Donald Trump's signature campaign promises Thursday, passing bills strengthening penalties on undocumented immigrants who return to the U.S. after having been deported and cutting federal funds to sanctuary cities.
By a 257-167 vote, the House passed "Kate's Law," a bill named after Kate Steinle, 32, who was shot and killed in San Francisco in July 2015. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a felon who had been deported five times, is facing murder and other charges in connection with the shooting. The bill increases prison penalties for undocumented immigrants who return to the U.S. after having been deported.
The House also passed, 228-195, the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, blocking so-called sanctuary cities from receiving federal grant money and expanding the federal government's capability of making them comply with immigration enforcement.
Trump greeted passage of the first bill with the tweet, "Good news, House just passed #KatesLaw. Hopefully Senate will follow."
He had emphasized tougher immigration enforcement throughout his campaign and often featured family members of victims at his campaign rallies.
During his convention speech in which he accepted the Republican presidential nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root, 21, who was killed in Omaha, Nebraska, in January 2016 when a vehicle slammed into her car at a traffic light. An illegal immigrant from Honduras, Edwin Mejia, is wanted for motor vehicle homicide in the case, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Mejia was charged with felony driving under the influence of alcohol but was released on bail and subsequently disappeared. He remains at large.
"One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders," Trump said in the July 2016 speech.
The president's support was "amazing," Root's mother told VOA this week.
"I was never going to lay down and let it go down without a fight. She deserved that," said Michelle Wilson-Root, who recently started the group Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime.
"We would love to not have one more illegal alien commit a crime, but it's unrealistic. I would love to never have another drunk driver kill someone, but it's unrealistic. So we have to take steps," Wilson-Root said.
Wilson-Root and others find comfort in tougher penalties, but according to a March 2017 Cato Institute study, there is no evidence that illegal immigrants commit more crimes than the general population.
Also, it remains to be seen whether illegal immigrants would be deterred by the new law.
"It's much more effective to increase the certainty that people will be caught coming here illegally then to threaten them with a long sentence that they probably don't even know about," Molly Gill, the director of federal legislative affairs at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told VOA.
Democrats push back
House Democrats said the bills were part of an anti-immigrant push by the Trump administration.
"Guess what [Kate's Law] does? Send them [illegal immigrants] to jail for 20 years for trying to come back for their children," said Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat.
Opponents have criticized the bill for not differentiating between undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes and those who do not.
Democrats also pushed back on the characterization of sanctuary cities as gathering places for criminals.
"It is a safety net for people that are part of our family. They take care of our children, they wash our dishes, they take care of our elderly, they pick our crops. This is an anti-American bill," said Representative Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat.
During a heated debate over the bills on the House floor Thursday afternoon, Republicans said their votes were in support of law and order — one of the president's campaign promises.
"President Trump is cracking down on immigration crime. Illegal border crossings are down, and arrests and deportation of criminal aliens are up, just as Americans demanded last November," Representative Scott DesJarlais, a Tennessee Republican, said during the floor debate.
In a statement issued after the vote, Trump urged the Senate "to take up these bills, pass them, and send them to my desk. I am calling on all lawmakers to vote for these bills and to save American lives."
Earlier versions of the bills failed to pass in the Senate.