San Francisco moved this week to try to cancel its sanctuary policy that protected an illegal immigrant murder suspect, but Congress pressed ahead nonetheless with legislation aimed at punishing the California city and any others who refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
House Republicans set up a Thursday debate on a bill that would withhold federal law enforcement grants from jurisdictions that shield illegal immigrants from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), turning back Democrats’ pleas for more time and more hearings on the issue.
The issue has taken off since the July 1 murder of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle as she walked on San Francisco’s Pier 14 with her father. The man accused of her killing was an illegal immigrant with a long criminal record who had been deported five times before and was wanted by ICE officials again, but who was released by San Francisco’s sheriff’s department anyway.
A San Francisco supervisor introduced legislation Tuesday calling on the sheriff to rescind his policy limiting cooperation with federal authorities, and top Democrats in Congress said blame for the killing lies more in miscommunication between San Francisco authorities and federal officials rather than with the sanctuary policy itself.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Democrats’ House leader, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a top Democrat on immigration, said in a joint letter to Homeland Security and the Justice Department that federal officials need to talk among themselves and with local prosecutors to figure out who should get custody of criminal illegal immigrants.
In the case of the Steinle killing, the federal Bureau of Prisons released the suspect to San Francisco earlier this year instead of turning him over to ICE. San Francisco then declined to pursue a decades-old drug case and, as per its sanctuary policy, released the man onto the streets rather than back to ICE, which had requested him.
The two congresswomen said usually it makes sense to honor criminal detainers from local police, but in this case it didn’t.
“Rather, where the outstanding criminal warrant pertains to a particularly old charge not involving violence or serious damage to property — as was the case here — and the state or local prosecutor is unlikely to proceed with a prosecution, there is no purpose to be served in deferring deportation,” the congresswomen said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
Still, many lawmakers said problems ran deeper than miscommunication, arguing that thousands of crimes are committed each year by illegal immigrants shielded by sanctuary policies in hundreds of cities and counties, in defiance of current federal laws that demand such cooperation.
“If the administration won’t act, Congress must,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.
The White House mocked the efforts, with press secretary Josh Earnest saying they “don’t take those legislative proposals particularly seriously.”
He said Congress should instead pass a law legalizing illegal immigrants. He pointed to a bill that cleared the Senate in 2013, though Democratic leaders never sent it to the House as legislation that would have boosted enforcement.
That bill did not crack down on sanctuary cities, Republicans countered.
On Tuesday, parents and spouses of those killed by illegal immigrants — including Steinle’s father — testified to Congress, calling for stiffer enforcement and an end to sanctuary policies.
One advocate who didn’t testify but was present at the hearing, Don Rosenberg, whose son was killed by an unlicensed immigrant driver, said he fears the proposals Congress is working on won’t go far enough.
Indeed, he said bills being considered in Congress might not have even saved all of the relatives of the victims who testified Tuesday because they will likely only apply to serious felons, leaving millions of other illegal immigrants unthreatened.
“Even if it did, it’s the tip of the iceberg. So, good, they’re killing 5,000 people a year; we’re saving 10,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “Here’s what works: You’re in the country illegally, we catch you, we deport you. That’s what works. The rest of this stuff is garbage.”