Reasonable dialogue took a back seat on Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding controversial “Sanctuary Cities.” These municipalities have some form of explicit agreement that bars employees from discussing residents’ immigration status with federal officials. Begun in the 1980s by church groups seeking to protect refugees from war-stricken Central American countries, the laws have become the new locus in the immigration debate. Although there is not a precise definition of Sanctuary City, over 300 localities nationwide have some form of non-cooperative policy with immigration officials, including most notably, the city of San Francisco. The July 1st shooting death on that city’s popular Pier 14 of 32 year-old Kathryn Steinle by an illegal immigrant who had been deported five times has brought the subject under intense scrutiny, including on Capitol Hill.
Among those attending the hearing was Jim Steinle, Kathryn’s father, along with several other relatives of loved-ones who were killed by illegal immigrants. Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) introduced legislation at the hearing that would withhold certain federal funding to states and localities that refuse to hold and transfer illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes over to federal authorities. The legislation also requires a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for immigrants who return to the U.S. after being deported. Steinle’s shooter and complete stranger, Francisco Sanchez, completed a sentence in March for entering the country illegally. Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE) officials sent the city a non-binding detainer order to hold Sanchez for deportation. He was detained for a month on a 20 year-old marijuana charge, but the judge eventually dismissed the case due to antiquity and let Sanchez free. In the ruling, the judge cited a 2013 ordinance that forbids him from holding Sanchez for immigration purposes. Sanchez confessed to the killing, although telling authorities that the gun fired accidentally.
While the Steinle case provided grounds for a nuanced discussion regarding the level of cooperation and/or animosity between federal and local authorities in immigration matters, Tuesday’s hearing was not designed for such a debate. Instead, participants were split into two panels, with the family members on one side and immigration officials on the other side. Jim Steinle began his testimony in a well-reasoned tone, saying “Our family realized the complexity of immigration laws; however we feel strongly that some legislation should be discussed, enacted or changed to take these undocumented immigrants felons off our streets for good.” With all sensitivity to a grieving father who lost his daughter in such a senseless manner, Steinle continues by calling his daughter’s death a “self-inflicted wound” caused due to “disjointed laws and basic incompetence on many levels.”
Unfortunately, this is where the forum became illogical, broad-brushing Sanctuary City policies in general terms when all parties involved actually followed their respective laws. Steinle continued by saying, “We’d be proud to see Kate’s name associated with some of this new legislation. We feel if Kate’s law saves one daughter, one son, a mother, a father, Kate’s death won’t be in vain.” Although Steinle’s frustration is understandable, this logic runs counter to Blacktone’s fundamental premise of law; that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be punished. While promoting his legislation, Grassley said that, “No more people should die at the hands of those who break our laws just by being here.” That is also illogical, as someone who is “just being here,” by definition of the term, is not killing anyone. Instead of looking to find reasonable solutions, the discussion continued to devolve into anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Instead of coming up with possible compromises like making it easier for federal detainers to be ordered by a court more expeditiously as some immigration officials have desired, perhaps in a similar manner as the FISA courts for the NSA, the discussion turned into the usual conservative anti-immigration rhetoric. Instead of bringing city officials to the hearing to discuss possible compromises, the discussion turned into an affirmation of Donald Trump’s statements that most people deemed to be racist. Witness Laura Wilkerson, whose son was beaten to death by an illegal immigrant in 2010, said “I thank you to Mr. Trump for getting a message out about the nation in two minutes that countless families like my own have been trying to say for five to six years.” Wilkerson added, “It feels good to be heard, whether you love him or whether you don’t. I felt heard.” Despite the widespread condemnation, Trump has ridden some degree of popularity for calling Mexican immigrants “criminals and rapists” last month while announcing his run for the presidency.
Trump has not apologized for the remarks, instead alluding to the Steinle murder as proof that he is correct. Therefore, it appears that the opportunity to discuss a solution that will help federal authorities apprehend dangerous people who do not belong in the country while avoiding racist undertones was sadly avoided in Tuesday’s hearing. Expect more grandstanding with a dose of fear-mongering on Capitol Hill in the coming months until the issue either fades away from the American consciousness, or watch lawmakers walk a delicate tightrope between appearing tough on immigration while avoiding Trump’s racist stigma. Due to multiple legal challenges to President Obama’s executive order regarding postponed deportations last November, immigration was already going to be a hot topic heading into the 2016 presidential race. Thanks to The Donald, however, it could either become a leading issue, or he could blowhard the issue into irrelevance.
CBS News – Rebecca Kaplan
Daily Caller – Chuck Ross
National Journal – Colby Bermel