House passes sanctuary penalties
Some Democrats join in toughest immigration crackdown in two decades
The House on Thursday approved what would be the toughest immigration crackdown in more than two decades, passing bills that would crack down on so-called sanctuary cities and impose stiffer penalties on illegal immigrants who sneak back into the U.S. after being deported.
Approval came nearly two years to the day after Kathryn Steinle was slain by an illegal immigrant while walking the waterfront with her father in San Francisco. The approvals were major wins for President Trump, who gave victims of illegal immigrant crimes an unprecedented platform in a debate that highlighted the illegal immigrants themselves.
Kate’s Law, named after Steinle, would impose a two-year prison sentence on illegal immigrants who have been deported or denied admission to the U.S. but who sneak back into the country anyway. The goal, backers said, was to try to root out repeat illegals who are responsible for a striking string of high-profile crimes.
The bill cleared on a 257-167 vote and attracted support from two dozen Democrats.
The bill against sanctuary cities, meanwhile, would guarantee local police the ability to work with immigration agents and would curtail lawsuits against communities that do cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security. That bill was approved on a near party-line vote, 228-195.
“Every year, countless Americans are victimized, assaulted and killed by illegal immigrants who have been deported multiple times. It is time for these tragedies to end,” Mr. Trump said in a statement.
He called on the Senate to follow the House’s
lead, but both bills will face a tougher time in the upper chamber, where party leaders are certain to mount filibusters.
Immigrant rights advocates said the bills were motivated by racism and vowed to punish supporters at the polls. Republican campaign operatives, however, were already attacking Democrats who voted against the bills, saying they were rewarding “lawbreaking criminals.”
Mr. Trump echoed that attack, saying opposition to the bills “puts all of us at risk.”
Democrats acknowledged that the stories of the families of Steinle and other victims were heartbreaking but said punishing sanctuaries could end up producing other victims by chasing immigrants into the shadows and making them less likely to report criminals.
Rep. Joseph Crowley, New York Democrat, said New York police have been able to detect and head off terrorist plots thanks to the city’s sanctuary policies. He said much of the information gleaned on potential attacks comes from illegal immigrants.
But a top Justice Department lawyer said this month that it’s fear of retaliation from criminal gangs, not fear of federal agents, that keeps witnesses silent.
Sanctuary city policies vary, and there is no good count of how many jurisdictions are sanctuaries. In general, they limit — or in some cases outright forbid — communicating or cooperating with federal immigration officers who are trying to detain and deport criminal aliens.
Tens of thousands of criminals are released onto the streets rather than turned over to federal officers, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE agents have to go out into communities to try to arrest targets, which officials say is more dangerous for everyone involved.
As for Kate’s Law, Democrats said it made no sense to try to impose stiffer penalties on illegal immigrants who had put down roots in the U.S. and then got deported, saying that sneaking back in was natural for people in that situation.
They said the solution was not to crack down on illegal immigrants, but rather to grant them a pathway to citizenship, erasing their illegal status.
“The immigrant community is looking for champions today,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat.
Democrats mostly maintained their ranks in Thursday’s votes, but overall they have been reeling since Mr. Trump’s election.
For years, they felt like they were gaining the upper hand in the political debate. They passed a broad bill granting citizenship rights to as many as 8 million immigrants in the Senate in 2013 and won unilateral protections from the Obama administration, which halted enforcement against most illegal immigrants.
Mr. Trump’s campaign changed all that. The Steinle killing happened just days after Mr. Trump jumped into the presidential race, decrying the criminal behavior of illegal immigrants. As a candidate, he held numerous events with families whose children and spouses were killed by illegal immigrants — and even gave them prime-time speaking roles at the Republican National Convention.
Now in the White House, Mr. Trump put at the head of the Homeland Security Department a retired Marine general with a penchant for tough talk, including against Congress.
In the latest such blunt criticism, Secretary John F. Kelly went to Capitol Hill on Thursday and not only called for the two crackdown bills to be passed but also said members of Congress have tried to “threaten” him over his department’s stepped up enforcement of the immigration laws it wrote.
Mr. Kelly said he was “offended” by those lawmakers — who he didn’t name — who he said “often threaten me and my officers” when they try to enforce laws that call for the deportation of illegal immigrants.
The retired Marine general has previously told members of Congress to “shut up” rather than criticize him for enforcing the laws it wrote.
In another indication of Mr. Trump’s shifting priorities on immigration, he has created a special office to work with the victims’ families. Some of the families met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday.
Steve Ronnebeck, whose 21-year-old son, Grant Ronnebeck, was fatally shot in 2015 while working as a clerk at a convenience store, said afterward that he was grateful for the change in Washington.
“Mr. Obama wanted to sweep it under the rug,” he said. “It felt like with Obama, we didn’t exist, and neither did our children.”
Others bristled at accusations of racism.
“I am a legal immigrant, so I did it the right way. Yet I lost my child to an illegal,” said Sabine Durden, whose son Dominic Durden was struck and killed by an unlicensed driver as he rode home on his motorcycle from his work as a 911 emergency dispatcher.
The driver was an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who had a prior criminal record, including two DUIs.
Four of six family members who spoke to reporters at the Justice Department said they live in places that would be considered sanctuary jurisdictions.
CRACKDOWN: House Republicans announced measures to punish sanctuary cities and penalize illegal immigrants who sneak back into the U.S.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, said a solution to immigration is not a border crackdown, but rather a pathway to citizenship to address some people’s illegal status. “The immigrant community is looking for champions today,” Mr. Gutierrez said.