Congress is rushing toward an ill-considered crackdown on immigration enforcement and “sanctuary cities” for all the wrong reasons.
The murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco this month, allegedly at the hands of Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who had been deported five times earlier, is a tragedy that never should have happened.
Throw in San Francisco’s status as a “sanctuary city” that refuses to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), plus the illegal immigrant ruckus raised by Donald Trump, and you have the makings of an instant controversy that has roused some members of Congress to a frenzy.
The trouble is, lawmakers threatening to impose penalties against “sanctuary cities” are indulging in a politically-inspired and wrongheaded rush to judgment that won’t fix anything. On the contrary, it could complicate already troubled relations between ICE and local communities.
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The solution lies in finding ways to rebuild trust between immigrant-friendly communities and ICE, the federal agency in charge of deportations. They have to find a way to narrow a long-standing breach of trust that respects feelings in local communities and also protects public safety.
Some immigrants are a public menace and should be deported. But putting immigrants who are generally law-abiding on the conveyor belt to deportation just because they got a traffic ticket increases fear and mistrust in immigrant communities. That makes it harder for local law enforcement because residents in some neighborhoods won’t trust or talk to officers who need their cooperation.
Yet even though random deportations on this basis hardly make a dent in immigration, this is what too often took place under the old Secure Communities program. Its flaws eventually prompted more than 300 communities around the country — including San Francisco — to declare that they would not cooperate with ICE deportations in most cases.
In the murder of Ms. Steinle, Lopez-Sanchez was released by the San Francisco sheriff despite an urgent request from the Department of Homeland Security that he be held for deportation. However, the city generally bans public employees from assisting ICE with investigations or arrests unless required by a law or a warrant, except for convicted felons.
Miami-Dade County doesn’t go that far, fortunately. “A felon ICE detainee we got, we keep,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez says. Still, unless a warrant exists for a person’s arrest, the county won’t hold detainees for 48 hours just so that immigration can pick them up.
That hardly makes Miami-Dade a “sanctuary” for immigrants but suggests there’s room for improvement in relations between the feds and the county.
The good news is that the federal government has replaced the much-maligned Secure Communities project with the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) that, as its name implies, changes the priories for deportation to focus on real felons. That allows ICE to concentrate resources on dangerous immigrants and improves safety in our neighborhoods. It deserves a chance to show it can work.
On Thursday, the House passed a pointless bill punishing sanctuary cities, yet it would not have prevented Ms. Steinle’s murder had it been in force earlier because it is merely punitive, as opposed to mandating a change in deportation priorities; nor was the perpetrator a suspect in a felony. Furthermore, is it unlikely to win Senate approval; it’s just politics. Congress should stand down unless it wants to tackle comprehensive immigration reform. Fat chance.