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The story behind ‘Kate’s Law’ — and how it could change immigration policies in the U.S.

Jim Steinle testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 21, 2015 about his daughter's death, which initiated a debate about sanctuary cities. (Video: Committee on the Judiciary)

Kathryn Steinle was walking with her father one July evening at one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist spots when suddenly, they heard a gunshot.

Steinle fell to the ground. She looked at her father and said, “Help me, Dad.”

Those would be her last words, her father later said during testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bullet had pierced the 32-year-old’s aorta. She would die two hours later at San Francisco General Hospital.

Her killer, authorities say, was Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a Mexican national with seven felony convictions and who had been deported five times but had returned to the United States.

Around the time of Steinle’s killing, Lopez-Sanchez had just finished a nearly four-year federal prison sentence for illegally reentering the country. He was turned over to San Francisco law enforcement officials because of an outstanding warrant for a marijuana-related charge that was immediately dismissed. Local authorities later released him, despite a request from federal immigration officials to keep him in custody because of his undocumented status, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Steinle’s family.

Less than three months later, authorities say, Lopez-Sanchez stole a .40-caliber pistol from the unlocked car of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger, and shot Steinle at Pier 14 along the Embarcadero.

The July 1, 2015, killing of the woman, allegedly at the hands of a man who wasn’t supposed to be in the country, intensified an already volatile debate over immigration and sanctuary cities — localities that refuse to hand over immigrants for deportation to federal officials. Her death was — and continues to be — a major policy weapon for politicians seeking tougher immigration policies.

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On Thursday, just two days before the second-year anniversary of Steinle’s shooting, the House of Representatives passed a bill known as “Kate’s Law,” which would enhance penalties for convicted and deported criminals who reenter the United States illegally. It was first introduced in 2015, but it failed to advance in the Senate.

“Kate’s Law” is one of two immigration bills voted on Thursday. The other, the “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act,” would bar federal grants from sanctuary cities and allow victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants to sue those cities. It also passed, and both bills are headed to the Senate.

The House votes come at a critical time for the Trump administration. Passage of the bills could pave the way for a victory for Trump’s immigration agenda, particularly on sanctuary cities. The president met with families of victims Wednesday and urged lawmakers to bring the bills to his desk quickly.

Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have strongly opposed Kate’s Law, calling it a “shortsighted and ill-conceived response” to the young woman’s slaying. They argue that it is blanket legislation that would penalize even those who come to the United States to escape persecution. Opponents also say that the bill perpetuates the false notion that undocumented immigrants are inherently criminals.

Steinle’s parents publicly advocated for the bill in 2015.

In the July 2015 testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, James Steinle said “disjointed laws” and “basic incompetence on many levels” resulted in his daughter’s killing.

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“Our family realize the complexity of immigration laws. However, we feel strongly that some legislation should be discussed, enacted or changed to take these undocumented felons off our streets for good,” Steinle said. “We’d be proud to see Kate’s name associated to 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.”

Steinle described his daughter, a San Francisco resident, as a beautiful young woman with deep faith, a contagious laugh and a smile that lit up a room. She was a world traveler, having visited Spain, Thailand, Amsterdam, Dubai and South Africa. She also went to the slums of Mumbai, where she spent time with a woman’s family and came back to the United States “a changed person,” Steinle said.

“The day Kate died, she changed her Facebook cover photo to a saying that said, ‘Whatever is good for your soul, do it.’ This quote truly describes her spirit,” Steinle said.

After the law failed in the Senate, Steinle’s parents went on Bill O’Reilly’s former show on Fox to express their disappointment.

“People would come up and ask us, ‘Where’s Kate’s Law? Where’s Kate’s Law?’ … I didn’t get the feeling, any warm and fuzzy feeling that Kate’s Law would hit the Senate or be passed,” Jim Steinle said. “It’s depressing and aggravating. We’re a bit angry about it, but that’s the government we have.”

Shortly after his sister’s death, Brad Steinle came out as a vocal critic of President Trump, then a presidential candidate. He slammed the real estate developer for “sensationalizing” the tragedy and using it to push for his immigration policies, specifically building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump had said in a statement that Steinle’s death was “yet another example of why we must secure our border,” NBC affiliate KNTV reported.

In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in July 2015, Brad Steinle said that building a wall is “not rational.”

“Donald Trump talks about Kate Steinle like he knows her,” he said. “I’ve never heard a word from his campaign manager, I’ve never heard a word from him … I don’t want to be affiliated with someone who doesn’t have the common courtesy to reach out and ask about Kate, and our political views and what we want.”

Brad Steinle also criticized local and federal officials for the lack of accountability over his sister’s death.

“The federal agencies, the city of San Francisco and the sheriff have all pointed fingers at one another, blaming the other person or the other agency on Kate’s death,” he told CNN.

Lopez-Sanchez, 54, is facing murder and other charges in connection to the shooting. The criminal case remains pending. His attorney, Matt Gonzalez, had argued that his client found the gun and that the shooting was accidental, NPR reported. A message left for Gonzalez’s secretary Thursday was not immediately returned.

Mike DeBonis and David Nakamura contributed to this report.

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