Senate Democrats launched filibusters Wednesday to protect sanctuary cities and to shield repeat illegal immigrants from mandatory minimum five-year prison sentences, saying Republican lawmakers were following the lead of Donald Trump in attacking immigrants.
The votes were taken slightly more than a year after the slaying of Kate Steinle, whose death at the hands of an illegal immigrant shielded by San Francisco’s sanctuary policy ignited a fierce debate over localities’ laws that limit or ban police from turning over immigrants to federal deportation officers.
Steinle’s death on July 1, 2015, drew attention to victims of illegal immigrant crime — a part of the debate that is often overlooked.
But Democrats said the Republicans’ solutions — stricter penalties on repeat illegal immigrants and punishing cities and counties for shielding illegal immigrants — were wrong.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said incarcerating illegal immigrants who repeatedly sneak into the U.S. after deportations would end up overcrowding prisons and cost Americans billions of dollars.
“Republicans are legislating Donald Trump’s vision that immigrants and Latinos are criminals and threats to the public,” Mr. Reid said.
He led Democrats in blocking the sanctuary bill, which fell seven votes shy of the 60 needed to override his filibuster, and the mandatory minimum bills, which fell five votes shy.
The man who killed Steinle had been repeatedly deported but sneaked back into the U.S. each time. He served a term in federal prison and was released to San Francisco, which asked to prosecute him on a years-old drug warrant.
Local prosecutors ultimately decided to drop the case rather than return the man to federal agents who wanted to deport him. The sheriff’s department, following the county’s sanctuary policy, released him.
“This is madness,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican who proposed the crackdown on sanctuary cities, including Philadelphia in his home state.
Mr. Toomey’s bill would have denied some federal criminal justice grant money to localities that refused to cooperate with immigration agents. Republicans said it made no sense to have taxpayers spend money on communities that refuse to work with the federal government.
The vote on his bill fell mostly along party lines, with two Democrats — Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — voting for the crackdown. A single Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, voted against the crackdown. Chicago helped pioneer the sanctuary city concept.
The legislation imposing a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years on repeat illegal immigrants was more popular. Mr. Kirk voted with the other Republicans in favor of it, as did Mr. Manchin, Mr. Donnelly and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat.
“Americans are tired of politicians standing with violent criminal illegal aliens,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who sponsored the measure, which he named “Kate’s Law,” after Steinle.
Immigrant rights activists warned Democrats against cooperating with Republicans on the bills. The activists said the immigration system is so broken that nobody should be deported until Congress passes broad legalization of most illegal immigrants in the U.S.
The activists have rallied to defend sanctuary cities, arguing that local police break trust with minority communities when they report illegal immigrants to federal officials.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been internally divided on the issue. The chief of the deportation agency at one point welcomed a crackdown on sanctuary cities, saying that it was a public safety risk to release dangerous illegal immigrants.
But the White House quickly squashed that sentiment and insisted the problem was broken federal laws, not a patchwork of local policies.
U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement says thousands of dangerous criminals it wanted to deport have instead been released onto the streets thanks to sanctuary policies.