WASHINGTON – Republicans in Texas who grouse that the federal government doesn’t enforce immigration laws might soon have Congress to thank for beefing up enforcement at the state and local levels.
The U.S. House is on track to vote later this week on legislation that would cut off federal funding for cities that don't enforce immigration laws.
Most members of Congress interviewed by The Texas Tribune on Tuesday had not yet read the legislation — dubbed the Enforce the Law for Sanctuary Cities Act — but said they were considering it ahead of the likely Thursday vote.
“I think we need to obey the law, but I want to see what sort of language they have on it,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat.
“I don’t know how broad this is going to be,” he later added. “But I do have a concern about sanctuary cities, to be honest with you.”
Sanctuary city is not a legal term but typically refers to municipalities that instruct their police not to enforce immigration laws or cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Some classify Houston as a sanctuary city, but others reject that characterization.
The logic behind the sanctuary cities is that it will translate into a willingness for undocumented immigrants to come forward and report crimes without fear of deportation.
A recent shooting death in San Francisco brought the controversial issue back into the spotlight. Authorities have charged Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a previously deported Mexican national, with killing a young woman named Kate Steinle.
San Francisco law enforcement had released Lopez-Sanchez, despite a request by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to notify the agency before letting him go, according to a CNN report.
Billionaire GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump further highlighted the issue after the murder by making sanctuary cities part of his campaign rhetoric.
Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi’s office responded on Tuesday, branding the legislation the “Donald Trump Act” in an email to the press. Her office elaborated, calling the legislation "a wildly partisan, misguided bill that second-guesses the decisions of police chiefs around the country about how to best ensure public safety."
And like many other pieces of legislation this year, some conservatives are joining liberal Democrats in opposition, saying the law doesn’t go far enough. Numbers USA, an advocacy group for stricter immigration laws and enforcement, opposes the bill.
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, would not commit to supporting the legislation until he had a chance to read the law. But he said he is usually against the sanctuary cities concept.
“In general, cities should be enforcing federal law,” he said on Tuesday. “They should not exempt themselves.”
The bill, H.R. 3009, by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., would block federal funding from local governments that have polices prohibiting law enforcement officers from questioning a person’s immigration status. It would also apply to entities that do not honor requests by federal immigration officials to keep a person detained in local jails.
U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, is a co-sponsor.
Former Texas governor and current Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry was the first candidate to propose a nationwide ban on sanctuary cities.
“One of the core responsibilities of the federal government is to secure the border,” he said in a statement July 9. “As the recent tragedy in San Francisco has shown us, it’s important for the federal government and local governments to be able to cooperate to apprehend illegal immigrants with criminal histories.”
It was familiar ground for Perry. The measure is similar to what the state’s Republican leadership has tried — and failed — to pass in Texas on several occasions.
In 2011, then-Gov. Perry made outlawing sanctuary cities in Texas a priority item and placed it on his emergency calendar. The state’s version would have denied state funds to local governments that blocked peace officers from inquiring about the immigration status of people detained or arrested.
The legislation failed to pass in regular and special sessions of the Legislature that year after faith-based and immigrant-rights communities argued it would lead to racial profiling. Business leaders also opposed the measure and said it would stain Texas’ reputation, possibly triggering boycotts similar to what Arizona faced when it passed its controversial state-based immigration bill. A similar measure failed in 2015.
Supporters of the federal measure argue it is a simple way to weed out criminal immigrants who are in the country illegally and intent on doing people harm.
“If this administration and local officials in sanctuary cities care about the safety of the American people, they should work to secure our borders and uphold, not undermine, our immigration laws,” U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said on the House floor earlier this month.
Opponents of the measure echo the sentiments heard in the state Capitol.
“Immigration enforcement at the state and local levels diverts limited resources from public safety,” members of the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force for Bibles, Badges and Business, a coalition that lobbies for comprehensive immigration reform, wrote to members of Congress on Monday.
“State and local law enforcement agencies face tight budgets and should not be charged with the federal government’s role in enforcing federal immigration laws.”