Bill to Defund Sanctuary Cities for Immigrants Blocked in California

by | October 21, 2015

By Carolyn Lochhead

Dismissing what they described as nativist political grandstanding, Senate Democrats blocked legislation Tuesday that would cut off federal funds to San Francisco and other cities that refuse to turn over people who are in the U.S. illegally to federal immigration authorities.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California joined a near-unanimous Democratic delegation in blocking full debate on the Stop Sanctuary Policies and Protect Americans Act, a GOP bill introduced after the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle on San Francisco's Pier 14 in July, allegedly by a man who was facing deportation before being freed by the city's Sheriff's Department.

The bill by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., sought to withhold several sources of federal funding from sanctuary cities that flout requests from immigration authorities to hand over people for deportation. Among the funding were community development and housing grants and federal aid to cities for the cost of detaining immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

The measure needed 60 votes to move forward to debate but attracted only 49. Forty-seven senators, including all but one Democrat, voted to block the bill.

White House opposition

Feinstein called the legislation too expansive and harsh. She and other Democrats argued that the bill would undermine cooperation between immigrant communities and local law enforcement, discouraging people from reporting crimes and helping police for fear of being deported. The White House backed them up with a veto threat, saying the legislation would hamper efforts by federal authorities to collaborate better with cities to remove criminals from the country.

Sanctuary city policies in San Francisco and other places gained national attention in the wake of Steinle's shooting death. A Mexican national who had already been deported five times, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, was arrested and has pleaded not guilty to murder.

Feinstein criticized Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi for his department's request that brought Lopez-Sanchez from federal prison to San Francisco for a two-decade-old warrant for marijuana possession. The district attorney's office decided not to charge Lopez-Sanchez, and in April the Sheriff's Department let him go without alerting immigration officials.

"In fact, not only did the sheriff fail to notify, (but) the failure was a consequence of a deliberate policy," Feinstein said on the Senate floor. "Just weeks before his office requested the transfer of Lopez-Sanchez, the sheriff adopted a policy forbidding his own deputies from notifying immigration officials."

A spokeswoman for Mirkarimi did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican running for president, denounced the 340 cities and other jurisdictions that would allow "murderers, rapists, thieves, drunk drivers" and child sex abusers to remain in the country despite their criminal records. He said San Francisco tells immigrant felons, "Come to San Francisco. We will protect you from federal immigration laws."

"If it is the Democrats' position that they would rather stand with violent criminal illegal aliens, that is sad testimony on where one of the two major political parties in this country stands," Cruz said.

But Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey denounced the legislation as part of "the most overtly xenophobic, nativist campaign in modern American history," one that "particularly demonizes the Latino community as rapists and murderers, courtesy of Donald Trump."

Trump, who is leading the GOP presidential field, has used inflammatory language calling for a crackdown on immigrant lawbreakers.

The vote followed a widely publicized Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this year during which Steinle's father, Jim Steinle of Pleasanton, held back tears as he described the night in July when his daughter was shot as she walked with him on the city's waterfront. He urged the committee to pass legislation that would keep undocumented-immigrant criminals off the streets.

Feinstein pushed an alternative measure that would require local law enforcement to notify federal agents when a potentially dangerous person was soon to be released, if the federal authorities had requested such notice.

"This is a reasonable solution that would target those criminals who shouldn't be released back onto the street," Feinstein said. She noted that California received $57 million in funding last year that the GOP bill sought to withhold. And she said the bill would apply to "all undocumented immigrants for deportation," not just those convicted of crimes.

'This goes much too far'

Among those swept up by the legislation, Feinstein said, would be "mothers crossing the border to see their children. It would include agricultural workers who are vital to California's economy. It would include other essentially innocent individuals who simply want to make a better life for themselves and their families.

"In my view, this goes much too far, and I cannot support it."

(c)2015 the San Francisco Chronicle