'Sanctuary Cities' Bill Dies in U.S. Senate

by | July 7, 2016 AT 11:00 AM

By Tom Fontaine

Democrats blocked a proposal Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey to withhold federal grant money from communities where authorities refuse to hold suspected undocumented immigrants for federal agents without a court order.

The so-called "sanctuary city" legislation has been a focal point of the Republican's heated re-election campaign against Democrat Katie McGinty, and it is likely to remain one, a political expert told the Tribune-Review.

"He is staking out a political terrain that gives him arguments to make throughout the course of his campaign. He is going to use this in the Senate race," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

Some of Toomey's colleagues in Washington said as much. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told USA Today that Toomey's bill was "a political tactic" that "gives him something to talk about when he goes home."

The measure failed 53 to 44, seven votes shy of the 60 required to pass. But afterward, Toomey quickly pointed to the "bipartisan majority" of senators who supported his bill. That bipartisan group included two Democrats: Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. Manchin and Toomey have allied themselves on several key legislative issues in the past, notably a failed gun control measure in 2013. Toomey's campaign also chimed in, accusing McGinty of waffling on the issue.

McGinty's campaign fired back, noting that Toomey's bill would have resulted in Philadelphia losing at least $39 million in federal grant funding.

"Pat Toomey is working hard directly and blatantly to harm his own constituents," McGinty said in a statement.

Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, has described Philadelphia's sanctuary city policies as "very radical." Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has said full cooperation between police and immigration agents discourages illegal immigrants from calling police or cooperating with investigators because of deportation fears.

Toomey's legislation would have prevented any counties or cities with sanctuary city policies from receiving grant money from the Community Development Block Grant program and the Economic Development Administration.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said at least 32 of the state's 67 counties would have lost out on a combined $62 million in funding for education, job training, affordable housing, low-income families and other programs. They included Armstrong, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland.

The legislation also would have removed any liability from local agencies that honor federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detainers.

Some local agencies have been reluctant to cooperate with federal agents because they did not want to be sued for unjustly holding suspected undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be released. Allegheny County shelled out $25,000 last year to settle a 2012 lawsuit by a West Mifflin woman who was held overnight on an ICE detainer after a routine traffic stop.

Toomey's legislation grew from the 2015 slaying of Kathryn Steinle, 32, in San Francisco. Toomey described the accused gunman, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, as a seven-time felon who had been deported five times and released from San Francisco police custody just three months before the fatal shooting. City police didn't notify federal immigration officials about Lopez-Sanchez's release because of its sanctuary city policies, Toomey said.

(c)2016 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)