Republicans in Congress target state, local immigration policies

Washington – Some cities, like New Haven, have a long history of promoting immigrant-friendly policies. Other jurisdictions, like the state of Connecticut, have more recently adopted immigration policies out of frustration about Congress’s failure to approve a comprehensive immigration bill.

Now those local and state policies are under scrutiny by congressional Republicans as a reaction to the July 1 killing of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant with an extensive criminal record. Supporters of the legislation say San Francisco’s policy of not sharing certain law enforcement information with federal immigration authorities, is to blame for the murder.

“You saw what happened in California,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Last week, House Republicans approved 241-179, mostly along party lines, the Enforce the Law for Sanctuary Cities Act, a bill that would withhold federal grants, used mainly for law enforcement, from places where police or other officials refuse to ask about a person’s immigration status, or don’t report detained undocumented immigrants.

The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. Hunter’s chief of staff, Joe Kasper, says so-called “sanctuary” policies need to be reined in for the sake of public safety.

But some Democrats in Congress are calling the measure “the Donald Trump Act” because the Republican presidential candidate, who has made inflammatory comments about Mexican immigrants, has highlighted the Steinle murder as he heightens the debate about immigration.

“It seems pretty clear that Republicans in Congress continue to want an entire population of people to live in the shadows,” said Devon Puglia, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “Put simply, it’s neither the right approach nor the right thing to do. Perhaps the Republicans in Congress should finally take up comprehensive immigration reform — that’s the only way to address the issue.”

The law would penalize any state or city that “prohibits” law enforcement officials from gathering information on immigration status or that has any “law, policy or procedure” prohibiting any government agency from maintaining information on immigration status or sharing it with the federal immigration service.

Sponsors of the legislation say Connecticut has policies that would include it as a sanctuary state, but Puglia said the state “does not have a rule, policy, or procedure in contravention of the language” of the bill.

More broadly, Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s top advisor on criminal justice matters, said he knows of  no Connecticut “law or policy or procedure in contravention of federal immigration law.”

“Criminal justice information is routinely shared” with the federal immigration agency, he said.

An analysis by the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association estimated that Connecticut receives about $5.4 million a year under the grant programs targeted by the act.

All Connecticut House members voted against Hunter’s bill.

“I voted against this legislation because it would second-guess our police chiefs and other law enforcement officials, and could prevent some of our nation’s largest cities, from receiving critical grants that enhance public safety and support community policing,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.

The “sanctuaries cities” bill has cities like New Haven in its crosshairs because the city’s police have a longstanding policy of not asking the immigration status of crime victims, witnesses or other people who seek police assistance.

“Disappointing only begins to describe federal legislation that seems intent on punishing American cities where new residents to this country are welcome and made to feel at home,” said New Haven Mayor Toni N. Harp. “The irony is that during all these years of federal inaction on immigration reform … local governments have bailed out the federal government with programs and services to help new residents get settled and get started in the United States.”

New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman said asking a person’s immigration status has nothing to do with police work. He also says it hurts efforts to build trust in immigrant communities.

“If we are to catch bad guys, we need people to trust us,” he said. “It does not make sense that police ask about a person’s immigration status.”

The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are about 108,000 undocumented immigrants in Connecticut, about half of them from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.

 Politics, or trying to solve a problem?

New Haven has nearly $210,000 in federal policing money for 2016 at stake if the bill becomes law.

But immigration advocates say the legislation doesn’t stand a chance, especially since President Obama promises to veto it.

Melissa Keaney, an attorney with the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center, said the bill “is about politics, not trying to solve a problem.”

“The Hunter bill seeks to penalize jurisdictions that prioritize community policing principles over involvement in immigration enforcement,” she said. ”It’s sweeping language could potentially affect scores of jurisdictions that have adopted policies that, for example, instruct police not to question members of the public about their immigration status.”

Senate Republicans have already introduced legislation that would withhold federal funding from any state or local jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he will introduce similar legislation.

The  GOP lawmakers are supported by Jim Steinle, who had been walking with daughter Kathryn on a pier in San Francisco when she was shot in the chest. The suspect in the killing, Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, had been deported back to Mexico several times. Republicans blame San Francisco’s “sanctuary” policies for Kathryn Steinle’s death.

At hearings in the House and Senate last week, Jim Steinle urged lawmakers to close loopholes in immigration law.

“Legislation should be discussed, enacted or changed to take these undocumented immigrant felons off our streets for good,” Steinle told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

More than 350 U.S. cities, counties and states, including Connecticut, have some sort of policy limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center estimates.

In 2013 Connecticut passed the “TRUST Act,” which was the first challenge in the nation to a federal policy called the “Secure Communities program,” which Obama has since abandoned, which picked up the pace of deportations.

The TRUST Act allows state and local law enforcement agencies to ignore a federal “detainer,” a request to hold an undocumented resident for immigration officials, if he or she hasn’t committed a serious felony.

The state implemented the policy to settle a court case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s previous policy of honoring all ICE detainers.

The state holds that an ICE detainer is a request and not an order like an arrest warrant or court order. ICE, however, says that, under federal regulations, detainers require law enforcement agencies to notify ICE before releasing a subject and to keep him or her in custody for up to 48 hours, excluding weekends and holidays, to allow ICE to take custody.

Grassley attacked jurisdictions like Connecticut that do not honor all detainers at last week’s Senate hearing on sanctuary cities.

“In the past few weeks, we have learned that there are thousands of detainers placed each year by federal agents on undocumented immigrants with criminal records that are ignored,” he said. “According to government data, between January and September of 2014, there were 8,811 declined detainers in 276 counties in 43 states, including the District of Columbia.”

Grassley said 62 percent of those declined detainers involved immigrants previously charged or convicted of a crime or who “presented some other public safety concern.”

Connecticut is also one of 11 states that allow undocumented residents to obtain drive-only driver’s licenses. The state also extends in-state tuition to undocumented students.

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