TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – State lawmakers returning to work are putting immigration issues on the agenda, with Kansas among about a dozen states considering measures against so-called sanctuary cities that would bar local law enforcement officials from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
The Kansas bills would ban sanctuary cities and withdraw state funding from cities with sanctuary policies. State legislators said the measures would protect citizens from incidents like the July killing of San Francisco woman Kathryn Steinle. The man charged in her death is a Mexican living in the country illegally who was released from jail even though federal agents wanted him detained for deportation.
"If Kansas' sanctuary policies are allowed to continue then it will only be a matter of time before someone is hurt or killed," said Secretary of State Kris Kobach, known for his tough stance on illegal immigration.
Proponents of sanctuary communities, which began in the 1980s when churches sheltered Central American refugees to prevent their deportation, say people need to be able to call on police for help without fear of deportation. Six Kansas counties — Finney, Johnson, Harvey, Sedgwick, Butler and Shawnee — have such policies.
The many state measures follow a failed effort in Congress last year after Steinle's death. Senate Democrats blocked legislation that would have cracked down on sanctuary cities, characterizing it as anti-immigration policy that echoed the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The GOP House had passed similar legislation last summer.
At least a dozen states now considering similar legislation include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin, said Ann Morse of the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina was one of the first states to sign prohibitions on sanctuary policies into law last year after Steinle's death, though Missouri had passed a law discouraging them in 2008 by threatening to block state funding from cities that refused to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
Kansas legislators said the measures would protect citizens from incidents like the one in San Francisco. Shawnee Republican Rep. Charles Macheers, a sponsor of one bill that will be discussed at a House committee hearing on Wednesday, said he wants to ensure Kansas communities comply with federal law. Shawnee Republican Rep. Brett Hildabrand, who drafted the other bill, said he didn't know of any immigration-related problems in the state's sanctuary counties, but other representatives and citizens wanted to address the issue.
"In visiting some folks around the state after the incident in San Francisco last year, this was something that a lot of people were interested in; so I think that this is something that has grass-roots support," Hildabrand said.
Cecilia Menjívar, a sociology professor who focuses on immigration at the University of Kansas, said the ban on sanctuary cities "is a symbolic gesture" connected to a larger debate about immigration and marks a nationwide shift toward state legislatures taking a stance on immigration reform.
"It's an issue in which a lot of politicians feel that they have to say something about to be part of the national conversation," Menjívar said.
Kansas has about 75,000 "unauthorized immigrants," according to the Pew Research Center, less than 3 percent of the population.
Lawyer Catalina Velarde of Kansas City says a client, who escaped Guatemala after the murder of her husband, was a victim of domestic violence in Kansas. Local law enforcement helped remove her from the situation, but Velarde said the woman would have been too frightened to seek help if pending legislation banning sanctuary cities had been law.
"The different police municipalities have done a phenomenal job of building good relationships with new communities and they want people to speak up if they're the victims of violent crime," she said.
Some Kansas sheriffs began refusing to honor immigration officials' requests after a federal ruling in Oregon that a woman's Fourth Amendment rights were violated when she was detained without probable cause in 2012. Shawnee County said in 2014 it wouldn't honor federal immigration officials' requests to detain people beyond their release dates without a warrant or probable cause.
"The danger isn't that we would hold an illegal alien, it's that we would hold a citizen," said Maj. Timothy Phelps of the Shawnee County Department of Corrections.
Phelps said he worries that detaining subjects without probable cause would make the county vulnerable to lawsuits.
"Our job here is to be strong and legally accurate corrections professionals. It's not our job to navigate politics. We make our decisions based off of law, and the Constitution is the highest standard of law," Phelps said.