Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has said mayors who run sanctuary cities should be held criminally liable — but he did not stop Orleans Parish, in his own state, from becoming a sanctuary itself in 2013.
He is one of at least four Republican governors running for president next year whose states have had cities and counties declare “sanctuary” during their tenure, without suffering the dire consequences the candidates now say the federal government should bring to bear on recalcitrant jurisdictions.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also have had counties or cities embrace the sanctuary movement on their watch. Four jurisdictions announced policies of noncooperation during Mr. Christie’s tenure alone, according to data compiled by federal immigration authorities.
More than a decade after President George W. Bush tried to stop illegal immigration, the problem remains thorny for Republicans, both policywise and with fickle voters.
The issue is likely to be on prominent display Thursday when Republican candidates square off in Cleveland for the first official debate of the primary season. The affair is likely to be dominated by disagreements over how to handle border security, interior enforcement and the estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows of the U.S.
“Immigration’s going to be a central topic,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant rights advocacy group and a close tracker of Republican politicians’ stances on the issue. “It’s going to be one of the few issues that genuinely divides them. And it’s going to be interesting to see if the moderators let people get away with sand-in-your-face sound bites.”
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Immigrant rights groups are planning debate-watching parties to draw attention to the issue. NumbersUSA, which demands stricter limits on immigration, announced plans to run an ad urging the candidates to rein in legal immigration, which adds about 1 million permanent residents to the country every year.
Other hot topics are likely to be President Obama’s deal to try to delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which has been rocked by a series of videos seemingly showing employees negotiating the sale of tissue taken from aborted fetuses.
Those issues are likely to show agreement, but immigration could reveal deep divisions within the field.
Much of that attention likely will go to Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman who in announcing his campaign said he would secure the southern border and blamed Mexico for sending rapists and other criminals to the U.S. — igniting denunciations from some fellow candidates and praise from others.
“What I’m looking for is to see how many of them recognize that part of Trump’s rise in the polls seems to have to do with his stance on immigration — whether they recognize how powerful that issue could be for them,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports a crackdown.
Mr. Trump doubled down on his comments after a horrific killing July 1 in San Francisco, where 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was shot while walking with her father. The man accused of the slaying was an illegal immigrant who had been released from custody recently under the county sheriff’s sanctuary policy prohibiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
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After the killing, most in the Republican field demanded that the federal government crack down on sanctuary cities.
Mr. Jindal this week called for mayors to be held criminally liable and said San Francisco officials in particular were complicit in Steinle’s death.
But on Mr. Jindal’s watch, Orleans Parish, which includes downtown New Orleans, limited its cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying it would hold only illegal immigrants charged with murder, aggravated rape, kidnapping, treason or armed robbery, according to ICE.
Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Dirmann said her boss tried to ramp up enforcement by state police, who do cooperate with ICE and who will proactively try to verify the immigration status of noncitizens with whom they come into contact in investigations.
“Sanctuary city policies like those in New Orleans make New Orleans’ officials partners in crime with illegal aliens who commit crimes there. Our nation is a country of laws. Individuals do not get to pick and choose which laws they will follow, and neither do elected officials,” Ms. Dirmann said.
“Gov. Jindal released a plan that will hit these lawless city leaders where it hurts by holding them directly accountable for crimes committed by illegal immigrants. If on their watch, an illegal immigrant breaks the law, we will count sanctuary city leaders as accessories and force them to pay for these crimes.”
Travis County, home to the Texas state Capitol, became a sanctuary in June 2014. It refused to honor requests to hold illegal immigrants — known as detainers — unless authorities had accompanying criminal charges, according to ICE.
Mr. Perry’s campaign said he tried to crack down on sanctuaries by making it an issue in 2011, just as immigration was heating up as a hot national topic and Arizona was testing the limits of state enforcement. Mr. Perry asked the state Legislature to follow Arizona’s lead.
That effort fell short, and the issue dropped off the radar in Texas, according to local news reports.
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry, said he now wants to revoke federal prison and jail and homeland security grants for jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and would punish states by subtracting a “proportional amount” from their funds, too.
In Wisconsin, Milwaukee became a sanctuary city in 2012, according to ICE. That was in Mr. Walker’s second year as governor — just after he survived a recall election.
Mr. Walker’s campaign said Wisconsin did try to cooperate on deportations and that the governor signed an agreement in 2011 to join Secure Communities, the Obama administration’s program to cull prisons and jails looking for illegal immigrants to deport.
Secure Communities, which the administration was trying to implement nationwide, helped Mr. Obama set deportation records in 2012. But immigrant rights groups put immense political pressure on the president, and he canceled the program in November. Mr. Obama now is trying to replace Secure Communities with a program that would deport far fewer illegal immigrants.
Ohio, where Thursday’s debate is set and where Gov. John Kasich has been in office since 2011, does not have any sanctuary cities listed by ICE. Florida and New York do, but the jurisdictions became sanctuaries after Jeb Bush and George E. Pataki left the governor’s offices in those respective states.
In New Jersey, three counties and Newark have embraced sanctuary policies during Mr. Christie’s tenure.
Speaking with Fox News last month, Mr. Christie said the country cannot allow sanctuary cities but added that it was the job of the federal government, not the state, to police immigration.
“We can’t prevent it on the state level. This has to be a federal solution,” he said.
Ms. Vaughan, at the Center for Immigration Studies, said governors do have fewer tools but hold the power of persuasion to argue against sanctuaries and to point out to residents the dangers of releasing potentially dangerous immigrants.
“I wouldn’t say there’s nothing the governors could have done, but the real missed opportunity was to discourage them,” she said.
At the federal level, a president does have more power, she said. For example, she said, the administration could immediately withhold reimbursement funding for state and local prisons and jails that hold illegal immigrants.
Defenders argue that sanctuary cities promote public safety because they make immigrants — both legal and illegal — more willing to report other crimes, particularly when they are victims.
Mr. Obama has threatened to veto any legislation from Congress that would crack down on sanctuary cities, saying he prefers the carrot approach to the stick.
That stance is also playing out in the Democratic presidential campaign, where former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has defended sanctuaries and as governor defended sanctuary jurisdictions in his state.
Mr. Sharry said he expects all Republicans to campaign against sanctuary cities and Democrats to defend them by arguing that they protect against ill-advised deportations.
Both stances are likely to be popular with the two parties’ bases, but Mr. Sharry said how the issue plays out in the general election depends on who the Republican nominee is. That, he said, will determine whether Republicans make any headway with Hispanic voters.
“Is it a Jeb Bush or is it a Scott Walker? They’ll both be opposed to cities having the ability to set limits, but I suspect Scott Walker would emphasize it a lot more,” he said.