The House voted Thursday to punish sanctuary cities that shield illegal immigrants from deportation, moving swiftly to crack down on San Francisco after 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle’s killing this month elevated the issue to the forefront of the immigration debate.
Saying victims such as Steinle deserved justice, and asserting that they could prevent more homicides, Republicans powered the bill through the House on a 241-179 vote, overcoming objections from Democrats who defended sanctuary policies as good policing and who accused Republicans of exploiting tragedy.
The White House vowed to veto the bill, insisting that President Obama’s deportation amnesty and enforcement priorities announced in November are better approaches to illegal immigration than trying to browbeat reluctant holdout jurisdictions to report illegal immigrants.
Republicans brushed aside those concerns, saying if cities and counties haven’t been convinced by a heavy toll of crime from illegal immigration, they won’t be swayed by pleas to cooperate with federal deportation authorities.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, would withhold federal grant money from jurisdictions that refuse to abide by a federal law that requires them to provide information to immigration agents.
“It’s simple. If you don’t comply with the law, as it stands now, then you don’t receive coveted federal money intended for enforcement,” Mr. Hunter said. “It’s time we stand up to sanctuaries and begin holding them accountable for their failure to uphold the law.”
The vote underscored the complicated politics of immigration and the murky situation of immigration law. Members of both parties sparred over who was to blame for the killing in San Francisco and whether the bill would have had any effect in preventing such tragedies.
More broadly, Mr. Obama’s immigration policy from November is coming under increasing scrutiny. The Migration Policy Institute, a leading thing tank on immigration, calculated that the president’s enforcement priorities shield 9.6 million illegal immigrants from any danger of deportation.
The White House defended the president’s approach, saying it leaves agents free to pursue the worst actors with serious criminal records.
The White House and congressional Democrats said sanctuary policies build trust between police and immigrant communities. Immigrants are more willing to report crimes, defenders say, making sanctuary communities safer overall.
Firm numbers are hard to come by on either side of the debate, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has acknowledged releasing tens of thousands of convicted criminals onto the streets. Republicans say ICE has lost track of hundreds of thousands of fugitive criminals in the U.S. illegally.
Never far from Thursday’s debate was Steinle, the woman whose killing brought attention to sanctuary cities.
Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, the man accused of killing her, had been deported five times and was still being sought by ICE agents, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons shipped him to San Francisco instead on a decades-old drug warrant.
San Francisco authorities decided not to pursue the drug case. Rather than turn Sanchez over to ICE, which had put a detainer request on him, the county sheriff’s department released Sanchez. Under the sanctuary policy, the sheriff won’t even inform ICE when an illegal immigrant is about to be released, shielding the immigrant from federal agents.
Steinle’s father, Jim, testified to Congress hours before the vote, pleading for lawmakers to crack down on sanctuaries and to impose mandatory penalties on illegal immigrants who sneak back into the U.S. after they have been deported.
“Our intent with ‘Kate’s Law’ is to get rid of or do something with violent felons,” Mr. Steinle said.
Democrats and Republicans alike said something went wrong in San Francisco.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, said the Steinle killing was a tragedy that stemmed more from lack of communication. She and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, also a California Democrat, sent a letter urging federal immigration and prison officials to use discretion to override a local community’s request if they think it makes more sense to keep someone in federal custody for deportation.
“It has been said that this bill is a response to the tragic murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco, just up the road from my district. However, nothing in this bill would have prevented that outrageous murder of Ms. Steinle,” Ms. Lofgren said.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he asked the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department this year to cooperate with his Priority Enforcement Program, which asks local prisons and jails to alert ICE when wanted immigrants are about to be released. San Francisco refused. Mr. Johnson has said he will try again in the wake of the Steinle killing.
The House bill, meanwhile, is unlikely to advance through the Senate as is. But a top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was mayor of San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s, and who says the sanctuary policy needs to be revisited, is working on her own version of legislation.
If she and Republicans can come to an agreement, it could gain momentum for a sanctuary crackdown and put the Obama administration in a tough position.
Homeland Security officials used to support punishment for sanctuary cities. Three years ago, the head of ICE testified to Congress that withholding grant money would be a good idea. But the administration has reversed itself under intense pressure from immigrant rights advocates.