Kathryn Steinle’s killing by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco this month riled the national debate about so-called "sanctuary cities."
Staunch Democrats—including California's U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton—joined a chorus of conservative calls denouncing local dissension of federal immigration holds. The issue has become a talking point in the 2016 presidential campaign, while bills going after sanctuary cities have been fast-tracked to the House and Senate.
Civil rights groups are now warning Democratic lawmakers against getting caught up in the hype, especially given the Republican control of Congress. A diverse coalition of more than 50 California groups signed a letter this week urging Feinstein and Boxer to resist laws that would coerce local law enforcement to cooperate with immigration officials.
50+ Groups Urge Sens. Feinstein, Boxer to Stop Efforts to Undermine CA Law; Legislation Would Bully Local Authorities http://t.co/KHXK5maOHL
— Nat'l Imm Law Center (@NILC_org) July 27, 2015
“We recognize that the tragic death of Kathryn Steinle moved you to identify solutions to prevent a devastating loss like this from occurring again,” the statement reads. “However, the response to the tragic death of Ms. Steinle should be reasoned and thoughtful, not broad, rushed mandatory enforcement measures, which will punish immigrants wholesale, and sanction California law enforcement leaders who developed policies aimed at improving public safety."
On Thursday, the House passed a bill that would punish state and local governments that prevent officers from asking people about their immigration status. The law would deny federal funding to places with “sanctuary” policies.
This would impact Santa Clara County, which in 2011 created a rule that allowed people to cooperate with police without fear of being detained or deported. Another measure, named “Kate’s Law” after the 32-year-old victim, would enact five-year minimum prison sentences for deportees caught coming back to the US, an especially costly proposal for a state like California.
— Nat'l Imm Law Center (@NILC_org) July 28, 2015
Laws so drastic shouldn't be triggered by a single event, according to the July 28 letter signed by the ACLU and dozens of other immigrant advocacy groups.
"We urge you to not let Ms. Steinle’s death lead to sweeping, overly broad policies that invite more tragedies—through unreported crimes and unjust deportations," the letter states. "Effective policies are carefully crafted over time, by examining our shared values and opinions, and working toward equality and justice for all people. They are not made based on a single, tragic incident or by taking the actions of one individual to justify an overly broad policy that criminalizes an entire community.”
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, however, has urged regional leaders to reconsider the county's civil detainer policy.
"Contrary to the purposes served by other immigrant-focused initiatives we've supported, any policy that hastens the release of predatory criminals makes us all less safe," Liccardo wrote in a July 10 letter to Board of Supervisors President Dave Cortese.
San Jose Councilman Raul Peralez, a former policeman, said reactionary policies miss the mark.
“I have a different perspective,” he wrote in an op-ed. “No one who is a threat to public safety should be released or allowed to roam free in our streets, regardless of their immigration status. While some have once again chosen to scapegoat immigrants in the United States, I assert that the real problem here lies in an inadequate criminal justice system and the loopholes that allow dangerous criminals to be released. Immigrants do not commit crimes at higher rates than citizens. If we want a true fix for crime, we need to fix these loopholes for everyone.”
More than 320 localities across the nation have limited cooperation with ICE agents because of concerns about liability and constitutionality.
Below is a copy of the letter sent by the ACLU and other groups to Boxer and Feinstein:
Dear Senators Feinstein and Boxer,
We write on behalf of a diverse community of your constituents who represent civil rights, immigrant rights, victims’ services, labor, faith, and human rights organizations to express our deep opposition to any legislation that you would consider introducing or supporting, that would undermine community safety policies adopted by law enforcement leaders in nearly all counties in the state of California.
We are deeply concerned that leaders in the state with the largest immigrant population in the country are willing to consider or lead legislative efforts to mandate local and state police entanglement with federal immigration enforcement. This type of entanglement through Secure Communities and other programs resulted in more deportations in California than any other state and a record number of deportations in our history.
Legislative efforts, along with efforts to strip federal grants from local law enforcement agencies that prioritize building and restoring community trust over detention and deportation, are exactly the kinds of enforcement-only policies that have and will continue to rip apart millions of immigrant families who make up the fabric of our communities across California and the entire nation. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, which you have both supported, immigrant families continue to languish in fear of deportation, which strongly deters them from coming forward as crime victims or witnesses. It is precisely this fear that has led over 320 localities across the country, including the majority of localities in California, to embrace community safety policies that allow their local law enforcement agents to do the job of preventing crime—not the job of federal immigration enforcement.
When local police are perceived as immigration agents, it creates a profound chilling effect for immigrant victims and witnesses who believe that sharing information with the police could result in permanent separation from their loved ones. Indeed, there are countless stories of victims who did report crimes, only to find themselves victimized twice, after being detained by immigration, separated from their families and awaiting deportation.
We recognize that the tragic death of Kathryn Steinle moved you to identify solutions to prevent a devastating loss like this from occurring again. However, the response to the tragic death of Ms. Steinle should be reasoned and thoughtful, not broad, rushed mandatory enforcement measures, which will punish immigrants wholesale, and sanction California law enforcement leaders who developed policies aimed at improving public safety.
We urge you to not let Ms. Steinle’s death lead to sweeping, overly broad policies that invite more tragedies—through unreported crimes and unjust deportations. Effective policies are carefully crafted over time, by examining our shared values and opinions, and working toward equality and justice for all people. They are not made based on a single, tragic incident or by taking the actions of one individual to justify an overly broad policy that criminalizes an entire community.
Sadly, in response to the tragic death of Ms. Steinle, we have already seen many politicians introduce and support legislation that scapegoats all immigrants based on the acts of one. Just last week, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3009, a bill that mirrors Senate proposals, such as those introduced by Senators Grassley and Vitter, and would deny critical funds for law enforcement programs in the more than 320 communities nationwide that have adopted community safety practices that encourage all crime victims to come forward.
The White House, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and your colleague and fellow California leader, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, all issued statements strongly opposing H.R. 3009. In criticizing the bill, Speaker Pelosi said, “The safety of our neighborhoods and local communities should not be a pawn for Speaker Boehner’s latest gambit to hide his failure to act on comprehensive immigration reform.” California’s TRUST Act and the local policies in most if not all counties across the state do not insulate individuals from accountability. Rather, they promote public safety by relying on practices that have proven to be effective in building trust and, consequently, preventing crime. It is unconscionable to think that the response to local law enforcement leaders that support these policies is to cut them off from critical funds that enable them to do their essential day-to-day work in preventing and investigating crimes.
Even the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—the very federal agency these bills are purportedly aimed at helping—rejects legislative responses to Ms. Steinle’s death. As DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson himself acknowledged in a July 14, 2015 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, “In my judgment, and the judgment of a lot of other border security, immigration enforcement experts, the way to most effectively work with these jurisdictions, again, is a cooperative one, not by hitting them over the head with federal legislation that will engender a lot more litigation.”
Secretary Johnson’s statements also recognized the numerous federal court decisions holding local agencies legally liable for constitutional violations when holding individuals on a request from immigration. States and localities should be permitted to pursue policies that foster trust and cooperation with their local communities. California has spoken loudly and clearly on this topic, both at the county and state levels. Moreover, as confirmed by a July 2015 report by the American
Immigration Council, increased immigration to the United States has in fact coincided with a significant decrease in both violent and property crimes nationwide.3 We know that the majority of the immigrant population comes to this country to reunite with family, work and make meaningful contributions that enrich their communities. What we need is a long-term Congressional solution aimed at addressing our broken immigration system, not reactionary policy proposals that focus on only one facet of a very complicated system. We urge you to do the right thing for all California residents and not introduce any legislative mandates that would undermine effective law enforcement practices that have kept all of California’s communities safer, stronger, and united.