WASHINGTON - U.S. lawmakers of both political parties want to compel cities and counties to cooperate with immigration officials to keep violent undocumented immigrants off American streets.
At issue are so-called “sanctuary cities” that do not notify federal officials when they have suspected illegal immigrants in custody, or when those individuals are about to be released.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Tuesday from family members of five Americans killed - or allegedly killed - by people who entered the United States illegally.
Among them was Jim Steinle, father of Kathryn Steinle, who was killed in San Francisco earlier this year in a case that sparked national headlines and added fuel to America’s emotion-laden debate over immigration.
The alleged shooter was an undocumented Mexican national with a criminal record who had been deported multiple times and repeatedly returned to the United States. Most recently, the suspect had been jailed and released by San Francisco’s police department, which declined to notify U.S. immigration officials.
“The day she was killed, we were walking arm-in-arm on Pier 14 in San Francisco,” Steinle told the committee. “Suddenly a shot rang out. Kate fell, looked at me and said, ‘Help me, Dad.’”
“The U.S. has suffered a self-inflicted wound in the murder of our daughter by the hand of a person that should have never been on the streets of this country,” Steinle added. “We feel strongly that legislation should be discussed, enacted, or changed to take these undocumented immigrant felons off our streets for good.”
Blocking funding for ‘sanctuary cities’
The committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, is introducing a bill that would block federal funding for local governments and police departments that refuse to cooperate with U.S. immigration authorities.
“The [Obama] administration has completely failed to do anything about sanctuary cities,” Grassley said. “Real lives are at stake. Things cannot continue this way. We are a nation based upon the rule of law, and if that rule of law isn’t respected, only chaos will succeed.”
Grassley is a fierce opponent of President Barack Obama’s executive orders to reform U.S. immigration in the face of congressional inaction. But the call for action on sanctuary cities is resonating with other lawmakers, including some who back the administration’s broader efforts.
“We have to improve cooperation between local, state, and federal law enforcement,” said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who represents California and was once mayor of San Francisco. “I strongly believe that local law enforcement should have notified the immigration authorities in the case of the accused murderer of Kate Steinle.”
Concerns about the bill
Others raised concerns about the proposed bill. The committee heard from the president of America’s police chiefs association, Thomas Manger, chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland police department.
“It is right to call upon us [local police forces] for actions to protect the public from crime and violence,” Manger said. “But it’s wrong to demand that we engage in matters related solely to immigration enforcement.”
Democratic Senator Richard Durbin warned of a chilling and disruptive effect if immigrant communities come to fear local law enforcement and view police officers as an arm of U.S. immigration enforcement.
“If every time a police car drove by and folks in a certain neighborhood thought they are looking for undocumented people, those folks are less likely to step up and cooperate with police to find real wrongdoers, real criminals,” Durbin said.
For Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who is running for president in 2016, the real culprit of America’s immigration woes is an administration that, in his view, has turned a blind eye to illegal immigration.
“There is a reason the American people are upset,” Cruz said. “If President Obama had the courage of his convictions… the administration would stop releasing murderers and rapists. It is within your power to follow federal law. And this administration refuses to do so, and that is altogether unacceptable.”
Cruz was addressing the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Leon Rodriguez, who noted the administration has taken steps to exclude violent felons from initiatives shielding undocumented workers from deportation.
“Those individuals are not supposed to have committed and been convicted of a prior felony, significant misdemeanors, or multiple misdemeanors. And they may not be or have been a member of a gang,” Rodriguez said.
Such words were small comfort to victims’ family members who testified Tuesday.
“I want you to know that our family is broken forever,” said Laura Wilkerson, whose son, Josh, was beaten to death in Texas in 2010. An undocumented immigrant was convicted of the crime.
“I don’t want your sympathy,” Wilkerson told lawmakers. “I want you to do something… take care of American families.”