House Republicans pushed toward a vote Thursday on legislation cracking down on "sanctuary cities" that shield residents from federal immigration authorities. Angry Democrats accused Republicans of aligning themselves with Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant views, and the White House threatened a veto.
"The Donald Trump wing of the Republican Party is clearly ascendant here today," Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said in floor debate ahead of a vote. "This bill is not about grabbing criminals, it's about grabbing headlines."
Republicans countered that action was needed in the wake of the July 1 shooting of Kathryn Steinle, allegedly by an immigrant in the country illegally despite a long criminal record and multiple prior deportations. The man, Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, had been released by San Francisco authorities despite a request from federal immigration authorities to keep him detained.
"There are criminals motivated by malice and a conscious disregard for the lives of others, and there are cities more interested in providing a sanctuary for those criminals than they are in providing a sanctuary for their law-abiding citizens," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. "This is more than an academic discussion. ... It is quite literally life and death."
San Francisco and hundreds of other jurisdictions nationally have adopted policies of disregarding federal immigration requests, or "detainers," which have been found invalid in court and which advocates say can unfairly target innocent immigrants and hurt relations between immigrant communities and law enforcement authorities.
The House bill, by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., would punish jurisdictions that don't cooperate with federal requests for immigration information or prohibit the collection of immigration information, by blocking them from receiving certain law enforcement grants and funding.
In its veto threat, the White House said the bill would threaten the civil rights of all Americans by allowing law enforcement officials to gather immigration status information from any person at any time. The White House statement said such an approach would lead to mistrust between local communities and law enforcement agencies.
As debate began on the House floor, Gowdy chaired a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the issue that included testimony from Kathryn Steinle's father, Jim Steinle, who was with his daughter when she was shot and killed. As he did earlier this week in an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Steinle recounted his daughter's shooting, seemingly at random, as they strolled arm in arm, and her final words asking him for help. He told lawmakers that some good could come from her death if laws could be changed to keep criminal immigrants off the street.
Members of both parties endorsed Steinle's plea but offered different diagnoses of the problem, in comments echoing the yearslong national debate over immigration. The latest chapter comes at a moment when immigration has become a hot-button issue on the presidential campaign trail, thanks to Trump's provocative claims about Mexican immigrants being "rapists" and "criminals."
Some Republicans, who normally have nothing but criticism for federal immigration policies, praised federal authorities in this case for issuing a detention request for Lopez Sanchez, and blamed San Francisco officials for ignoring it.
"The question remains, do we enforce or do we not?" said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. "Do we want to be under a rule of law, or do we want to have something else?"
Democrats, on the other hand, said federal authorities should not have turned Lopez Sanchez over to a jurisdiction with a known sanctuary city policy to face a decades-old drug charge, given the strong likelihood he would be released. They said what was needed was comprehensive immigration legislation, which Republicans have blocked for years in the House, and noted that a number of mayors and law enforcement agencies have come out against the bill.
"This bill reeks of prejudice. It isn't mean to solve any problem, it's meant to punish cities that don't embrace the views of anti-immigrant extremists, it's mean to demonize all immigrants as criminals," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.