U.S. House Votes to Defund Sanctuary Cities Despite Obama's Veto Threat

by | July 24, 2015

By Mary Ann Toman-Miller

Lawmakers voted Thursday to cut funding for cities and towns that refuse to comply with federal immigration laws as they debated how to respond to the fatal shooting of a young woman in San Francisco in which the suspect had been deported to Mexico five times.

A bill that passed the House on a largely party-line vote, 241-179, attempts to bring in line so-called sanctuary cities, which offer safe havens to people in the country illegally by barring municipal employees from asking about their immigration status, and other places that refuse to comply with federal requests to detain people who are in the U.S. illegally.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) called passage of the bill "a start to the conversation on immigration."

The Republican-led House passed the legislation, which Democrats called the "Donald Trump Act," a reference to the billionaire's divisive campaign-trail rhetoric on immigration. Most Republicans supported the bill and most Democrats opposed, with just a handful of lawmakers from both parties crossing sides. The outcome in the Senate is less certain. The White House said Thursday that President Obama would veto the bill because it falls short of "comprehensive reform." Some Democrats worry that cuts to law enforcement funding would jeopardize safety.

The bill comes amid the inflamed debate over the immigration system after the July 1 shooting of Kathryn Steinle on a San Francisco pier. Steinle was walking arm in arm with her father when she was shot in the chest. The suspect, Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, had been transferred from federal custody to the San Francisco County Jail for outstanding drug-related charges dating from 1995. But the district attorney dropped those charges and Sanchez was released in April without federal immigration officials being notified.

At a hearing Thursday, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the immigration subcommittee, skewered what he called "utopian"-sounding sanctuary cities as "more interested in providing a sanctuary for those criminals than they are in providing a sanctuary for their own law-abiding citizens."

Gowdy said he wanted to know why "a career recidivist like Sanchez who had a quarter-century's worth of lawlessness" was ever released from prison.

Gowdy and others also attacked the lack of communication and coordination among agencies in transferring Sanchez to answer to a decades-old drug charge that was ultimately dismissed. San Francisco "could have dismissed it while he was halfway through his federal prison sentence. They could have dismissed it at any point throughout his federal prison sentence," Gowdy said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) emphasized that "every jurisdiction has a multiplicity of bench warrants issued and there generally is no process for going back and taking a look at old bench warrants to see whether they ought to be dismissed. We need to sort through with some granularity to make sure that we're solving the problem." Federal immigration officials don't take custody of inmates until all outstanding state charges are pursued.

"Our intent ... is to get rid of or do something with the violent felons ... that come in to the United States. We need to differentiate among the level of felons," Jim Steinle, Kathryn Steinle's father, testified in his second appearance before lawmakers this week.

Staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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