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House Democrats Join GOP in Further Criminalizing Undocumented Communities

Tina Vasquez

The congressional bills are part of President Trump's campaign against cities that won't cooperate with his administration's draconian anti-immigrant policies.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved two anti-immigrant bills championed by President Trump that advocates say “criminalize” undocumented people and “undermine the U.S. Constitution.”

The No Sanctuary for Criminals Act and Kate’s Law now move on to the U.S. Senate, where they are expected to “meet resistance,” the New York Times reported, because “they would need Democratic support to clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.”

Twenty-four House Democrats voted for Kate’s Law, while three Democrats helped pass the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act.

“The No Sanctuary for Criminals Act” is an attempt to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities by forcing local law enforcement to engage in immigration enforcement and follow federal immigration laws, or be denied federal funds.

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“Kate’s Law” would increase penalties for those who enter the United States without authorization. The bill is named after Kate Steinle, a woman who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco two years ago.

On the campaign trail, Trump frequently shared Steinle’s story to support the narrative that undocumented immigrants are violent criminals. Studies confirm undocumented people commit fewer crimes than U.S. citizens, something recently confirmed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Thomas Homan during an off-camera White House briefing. Yet the narrative persists in media and American politics.

Fox & Friends co-hosts Ainsley Earhardt and Steve Doocy defended “Kate’s Law” on their Friday episode. “Earhardt claimed that the Republican-backed policy is ‘not about racism,’ and shortly thereafter alleged that the ‘majority’ of undocumented immigrants detained by ICE are criminals,” Media Matters for America reported. “Despite Earhardt’s claims, the number of non-criminals detained by ICE has doubled under the Trump administration, and while a number of dangerous criminals have been detained and deported, an alarming number of innocent, hardworking people taken into ICE custody have had no convictions or minor violations.”

In a recent Fox News op-ed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions conflated sanctuary cities, which are little more than statements of solidarity, with safe havens for violent criminals. “These cities protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes, rather than their law-abiding residents,” Sessions wrote. Sessions admonished officials in sanctuary cities that “refuse to hold” known gang members in custody on ICE detainer requests, writing that these gang members “have murdered and gang-raped innocent children as part of their initiation.”

These anti-immigrant congressional bills purport to keep U.S. citizens safe by creating harsher penalties for undocumented immigrants who commit crimes—even though laws penalizing them more severely than citizens already exist. What these bills actually do, advocates said, is make every member of a community more unsafe while using local law enforcement as a tool to carry out Trump’s promised mass deportations.

“The day we allow the U.S. House of Representatives to pass bills that undermine the U.S. Constitution, criminalize immigrants and threaten the safety of our cities is the day we abandon the democratic principles that have made America great,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Fund. “These bills are nothing but anti-immigrant, nativist rhetoric designed to bolster Trump’s deportation machine and boost profits for private prisons.”

Local law enforcement agencies by and large already participate in immigration enforcement. When a person is taken into custody by local law enforcement, their fingerprints are captured and sent to other agencies, including ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). For those in the country without authorization, this means an arrest for something as minor as turnstile hopping can lead to deportation back to potentially life-threatening circumstances.

Most so-called sanctuary cities still honor ICE detainer requests, which are not mandatory or legally required and are unrelated to criminal detainers. Detainer requests are a key immigration tool that involve a written request from ICE asking a local jail to detain a person for an additional 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays) after their release date in order to provide ICE agents extra time to decide whether to take custody of the undocumented person.

When a local law enforcement agency chooses to comply with ICE detainers, the ACLU has written, people in the community come to see law enforcement “as an arm of ICE: This perception can have devastating consequences for community relations, eroding people’s trust … and making them reluctant to come forward and report crimes because they fear immigration consequences for themselves or others.”

Local law enforcement agencies use their discretion when choosing whether to honor detainer requests—and many choose not to out of fear of being sued for unlawfully detaining someone. “Detainer lawsuits are regular occurrences, and although the request comes from ICE, the choice to comply means a state, county, or city is liable for potential damages,” the ACLU writes.

Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a bipartisan organization advocating for “commonsense immigration reform,” said in a statement that though these bills are “presented as public safety bills,” they harm communities.

“Leading law enforcement has made very clear, that they oppose these bills and that it will hurt public safety,” Schulte’s statement read. “The Fraternal Order of Police opposed the No Sanctuary for Criminals legislation, and law enforcement from around the country continue to oppose both of these bills. If passed, this bill will threaten funding actually critical to public safety.”

The Trump administration has routinely used the issue of detainers to shame and stigmatize cities that do not comply with ICE requests. This rhetoric has emboldened state legislators to propose their own anti-immigrant bills. Legislators in at least 37 states are considering anti-immigrant legislation this year, with at least 29 states expressly prohibiting sanctuary policies.

The enforcement-only bills that passed the House yesterday do nothing to amend or address the country’s broken immigration system, which provides no pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for decades, have no criminal record, pay taxes, and have mixed-status families.

Rather, as Amnesty International said in a statement, the bills “would vastly expand the Department of Homeland Security’s mandatory detention powers and  would intensify criminalization of immigrants reentering the U.S., including asylum seekers and immigrants returning to U.S. citizen children.” The organization charged that these bills “violate due process, family unity, and international human rights standards.”

For years, Schulte said in a statement, lawmakers in the House have wanted “to address the aspects of our immigration system in desperate need of reform,” but the bills passed this week are merely an “example of a years long pattern of bringing nothing but more enforcement-only bills to a vote.”

“Both of these bills will make us less safe, not more,” Schulte’s said. “They would force more tax-dollars to be spent arresting, jailing or deporting immigrants whose only violation is their immigration status.”

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