The House voted Thursday to punish local jurisdictions — known as “sanctuary cities” — that defy federal immigration authorities in order to protect immigrants living illegally in the United States.
The 241-to-179 vote, which was backed by Republican leaders and fell largely along party lines, is the most dramatic action taken by Congress after a spate of new attention on illegal immigration sparked by the July 1 killing of a 32-year-old California woman.
The shooting of Kathryn Steinle on a San Francisco pier, allegedly at the hands of an illegal immigrant who was released from local police custody despite a detention request from federal authorities, has sparked a national debate — one that has been turbocharged by the remarks of billionaire Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Steinle’s father testified before a Senate committee Tuesday and again before a House committee Thursday, calling on Congress to take action. Her accused killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, has seven felony convictions since 1991 and has been deported five times from the United States to Mexico.
“Due to disjointed law and basic incompetence on many levels, the U.S. has suffered a self-inflicted wound by the hand of a person who never should have been on the streets of this country,” Jim Steinle said Tuesday.
Under the legislation that passed Thursday, cities that do not comply fully with federal immigration authorities would be ineligible for various Justice Department law enforcement grants, including a program that reimburses local jurisdictions for the cost of detaining illegal immigrants accused of or convicted of crimes.
“The American people have the right to not give their tax dollars to municipalities and states that do not follow federal law,” said Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), the bill’s author. “The fact that San Francisco and L.A. and other cities disagree with the politics of federal enforcement does not give them a free pass to subvert the law.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also spoke out Thursday, citing the “preventable” Steinle killing. “The House is acting today to put state and local officials on notice that we’ll no longer allow them to decide how and when to enforce our nation’s laws,” he told reporters.
Some law enforcement organizations, civil rights groups and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have pushed back on efforts to crack down on sanctuary cities, arguing that new policies would be counterproductive by undermining the trust between local law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
“I do not think we should punish and strip grants and federal funding from local law enforcement, cities and towns who are promoting community policing, public safety and the U.S. Constitution ahead of racial profiling and prejudice,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said during a procedural hearing Wednesday.
It is unclear how many jurisdictions could be affected by the House bill. One group that advocates more-restrictive immigration policies, the Center for Immigration Studies, has identified 276 states, counties and municipalities with various sanctuary-type laws. A group that opposes stronger enforcement, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, has identified more than 360 jurisdictions.
Many Democrats who have spoken out in recent days have connected the legislation to Trump’s remarks following the Steinle slaying that the Mexican government was “sending people that have lots of problems.” Added Trump: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
One Democratic leader, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), referred to the legislation as the “Donald Trump Act.”
Democrats also lambasted Republicans for bringing the bill directly to the House floor rather than holding a series of hearings and passing it through a committee. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who represents the area where Steinle was killed, called the bill an “inappropriate attempt to address a very serious situation.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) defended the move this week, calling the bill “the first bite of the apple” on the issue of illegal immigration, with more legislation probably to come.
“Those cities that decide what federal laws they want to uphold and those they do not, I think, have a real problem with the rest of the country,” he said. “I think you’re seeing a desire within America that . . . a federal law should be a federal law and you can’t pick and choose.”
Senate action is less certain. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced “Kate’s Law” in honor of Steinle and has announced intentions to move it through his committee.
That bill would make a wider variety of grants unavailable to sanctuary cities than the House bill and would increase penalties for individuals who reenter the country after having been deported. Some Senate Democrats, including San Francisco native Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), also say some less-sweeping legislative action may be necessary.
But it is unclear when any measure might make it to the floor of the Senate, which is expected to be tied up with transportation legislation until congressional summer recess begins in August.
“On the timing of that, I couldn’t tell you right now,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Tuesday.
The White House issued a veto threat Thursday after spokesman Josh Earnest said the day prior that President Obama would much prefer Congress act on a comprehensive immigration reform package, like the one passed by a Democratic Senate in 2013. The Republican House never took up that legislation.
“These are the kinds of enforcement provisions that were included in the law that Republicans blocked,” Earnest said. “So when they raise concerns about how effectively our immigration system is working to keep the community safe, they have no one to blame but themselves.”