Backed by a veto threat from the White House, Senate Democrats launched a filibuster Tuesday to defend so-called sanctuary cities against a crackdown, saying immigrants will lose trust in police if local authorities share information with federal immigration agents.
The vote dashed the hopes of victim’s rights advocates who had thought the July murder of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco could sway the debate, but who were derailed by a slow-moving Republican leadership in Congress and a Democratic Party increasingly eyeing Hispanic voters as an election bulwark.
“This bill does nothing more than instigate fear and divide our nation,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat.
The legislation would have stripped sanctuary cities and counties of federal law enforcement grants, giving the money instead to localities that do cooperate. The bill also would have clearly stated that local authorities are legally able to assist federal agents by holding illegal immigrants for pickup.
And the measure would have imposed a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for illegal immigrants who have already been deported yet sneak back and commit serious crimes, or who repeatedly sneak back after having been removed.
Those provisions were named “Kate’s Law” after Steinle, who was slain by an illegal immigrant who federal authorities had tried to deport, but who was instead released by San Francisco County under its sanctuary policy. The illegal immigrant, who says the shooting was an accident, had been deported five times, and snuck back in each time.
Steinle’s July 1 killing brought new attention to sanctuary cities, but Republican Senate leaders waited more than three months before bringing legislation to the floor, frustrating many crackdown advocates who said the GOP squandered momentum. GOP senators counter that they were trying to negotiate a compromise with Democrats, but moved forward when it became clear key Democrats weren’t budging.
“The issue before us is not really about immigration, it’s more about keeping our communities safe,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Republicans fell six votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster, with just two Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — backing the bill, and one Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, opposing it.
Police organizations themselves are also split, with some saying the increased authority will keep their communities safer, and others saying they fear immigrants will stop trusting police and will be reluctant to report serious crimes if they believe they may get ensnared in immigration enforcement.
The White House echoed that fear in a state of policy vowing to veto the bill, if it had made it to the president’s desk.
“The administration believes that these provisions would lead to mistrust between communities and state and local law enforcement agencies; undermine the ability of law enforcement to keep communities safe across the country; and impede our efforts to safely, fairly, and effectively enforce the nation’s immigration laws,” the Office of Management and Budget said.
The Senate last visited immigration policy in 2013, when four Democrats and four Republicans — including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, two current GOP presidential hopefuls — negotiated a massive overhaul of immigration policy that would have legalized most of the 11.5 million illegal immigrants now in the country, boosted the level of legal immigration and built hundreds of miles of more border fencing.
That bill passed with bipartisan support, 68-32. But Democrats never sent it to the House, where GOP leaders flirted with legalization but eventually recoiled and settled on a get-tough approach that appealed to conservatives.
Mr. Rubio joined fellow Republicans Tuesday in voting to crack down on sanctuary cities, as did Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who are also seeking the GOP nomination. Mr. Graham missed the vote, while Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent seeking Democrats’ nomination, joined the filibuster.