Will a GOP-led House mean the end of ‘sanctuary cities’?

Created: November 10, 2010 18:01 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

With a GOP-controlled House on the horizon, I’ve been looking at a few policy proposals made by conservatives and pro-enforcement groups to see which ideas stand a chance of being passed by a Democratic-majority Senate and signed into law by President Obama. (See my post on E-Verify here.) One proposal that could fit the bill: a law to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities, places with immigrant-friendly policies limiting checks on immigration status.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who is expected to run the House Judiciary Committee, has spoken out against these cities, claiming they violate a 1996 law that expanded the government’s reach on illegal immigration. After the Justice Department decided to sue Arizona for taking on immigration enforcement with SB 1070, conservatives argued there should be a similar crackdown on sanctuary cities.

“For the Justice Department to suggest that they won’t take action against those who passively violate the law — who fail to comply with the law — is absurd,” Smith, the chief author of the 1996 immigration law, told The Washington Times in July. “Will they ignore individuals who fail to pay taxes? Will they ignore banking laws that require disclosure of transactions over $10,000? Of course not.”

The 1996 law, the Immigration Control and Financial Responsibility Act, requires local governments to cooperate with immigration enforcement authorities. Most lawmakers in sanctuary cities — San Francisco being one notable exception — deny that the label applies to their city’s policies because they do not prevent immigration authorities from policing immigration in their areas. They claim their policies are meant to enhance public safety by making undocumented immigrants feel comfortable about reporting crime to the police or seeking help from health officials.

As immigration enforcement programs expand, the “sanctuary cities” title is beginning to mean less and less. The Secure Communities program, which shares fingerprint data taken after arrests with federal immigration enforcement, is mandatory even in cities such as San Francisco that oppose turning the data over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The 287 (g) program, which was established under the 1996 law, has also led to expanded cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration officials as police are trained and deputized to perform immigration enforcement duties in some areas.

Still, it’s possible Smith will attempt a bill explicitly banning sanctuary-style policies. Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the pro-enforcement Federation for American Immigration Reform, told TWI that his organization hopes to see the Republicans in the House take a tough stand against sanctuary policies.

Such a measure could conceivably gain traction among Democrats, given the fact that “sanctuary” was used as a dirty word in several campaigns this year. The Obama administration’s eagerness to spread Secure Communities nationwide and continuation of the 287 (g) program seem to indicate at least some support for local police assistance with immigration enforcement. And although Obama and the Justice Department came down hard on Arizona for SB 1070, Obama’s arguments against a “patchwork of policies” could be — and have been — used by others against sanctuary cities.

GOP House members might also try to pass legislation specifically giving states the right to crack down on immigration, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates stricter enforcement. “They might propose a bill to specifically assert states’ authority to participate in immigration enforcement,” he said. “I could see that passing the House relatively easily.”

That type of law, though, is far less likely to gain support from Democrats. Krikorian said he was almost certain such a bill would be vetoed by Obama, if it were able to get past Senate at all.