Sanctuary Cities: tbd (to be defunded)?

When Quasimodo famously (well, in literature and via Disney, anyway) cried ‘sanctuary’ on behalf of the Parisian gypsies, he didn’t necessarily have to worry about financial repercussions. Victor Hugo with his perchance for brick-length novels tended to concern himself more with heartbreaking character deaths, and Disney focused on delivering a happy ending – but alas, real life unfolds differently, which is what has happened today over in the US of A.

House Republicans are seeking a crackdown on cities across the US, dubbed ‘sanctuary cities’ which shelter illegal immigrants – and they signalled their intent today.  They voted to pass legislation that would deny federal funds to these so-called sanctuary cities. The bill, which passed by 241 votes to 179 (remember that after the November 2014 midterms, the GOP controlled Congress) is designed to withhold certain federal law enforcement grants to cities that have policies designed to shelter illegal immigrants from deportation. You can read up on such cities from a proponent, advocate website here.

Okay, so we know that the GOP traditionally have a tough line when it comes to illegal immigrants. But why up the ante now, when summer recess is rapidly approaching? A clue: political excuse. Not to mention that the summer recess will allow for this bill to gain momentum and further planning.

The GOP attack has to be placed within context. It follows in the aftermath of a shooting incident in San Francisco, CA this month which resulted in the death of a young women, Kate Steinle, and that allegedly involved an illegal immigrant. That the man in question apparently possesses a criminal past isn’t helping matters. San Fran authorities believe that the killing was carried out by one Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who bears a history of felony convictions and who had apparently been deported five times. You can imagine that this revelation fired up the media. The GOP have seized on the opportunity to demand tighter border controls and investigation into cities which shield illegal immigrants from the law and subsequent deportation. Hence their proposal of this bill, which would deny cities that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws certain Justice Department grants.

Consequently, these sanctuary cities have come under intense scrutiny in the wake of Kate Steinle’s death. There has also been increased media coverage, both in the US, but also on a global scale. (I must confess that I had not been aware of such cities, nor to their extent across America.)

Critics of the sanctuary laws say such policies encourage people to immigrate to the U.S. illegally at the expense of citizens, and such arguments were put forward in the House prior to the voting of the bill. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R- SC) – remember this fella? He is the Chairman of the Select Committee investigating what actually happened at Benghazi. Keep an eye on the Committee, but also the man himself – in particular criticised the sanctuary laws in typical, robust Republican fashion:

“A refuge for whom? A sanctuary for whom?… A sanctuary for Kate Steinle? Or a refuge for a convicted felon with a 25-year-long criminal history?”

Of course, it should be noted that sanctuary cities do not condone any criminal activity by any person, illegal immigrant or otherwise. (Apart, of course, from allowing illegal immigrants to stay within the city and not be arrested.) In addition, we should all remember that many ‘illegals’, whether entering America, or closer to home here in Europe, are not seeking to engage on a crime spree. A vast majority of these people are simply seeking a new life for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, however, they do happen to be breaking laws in the process.

As we know how lovingly and caring the two main parties are towards each other, the Democrat stance must be noted. Democrats have accused House Republicans of bringing up the bill in part because of (wait for it) real estate mogul and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, and his especial focus on illegal immigration and sanctuary cities. They have dubbed the bill the ‘Donald Trump Act’ as a result; given Trump’s recent controversial immigration comments, I personally think it is a good working title for the bill. As you may imagine, this wit is not welcomed by the GOP. House Republicans strongly denied that Trump had any influence on their decision to bring up the legislation.

Upon receiving news of the House GOP’s intentions in relation to both the bill and the vote on same, Obama had some criticism of his own to issue forth, in typical, robust Democrat fashion via a press statement. Prior to the vote today, the Obama Administration threatened to veto the bill. The Obama Administration also indicated that the death of Ms Steinle is not a valid reason to pressure sanctuary cities to enforce federal laws. (A stance which may not impress the Steinle family.)

The Office of Management and Budget stated in its released statement of administration policy:

  ‘This bill fails to offer comprehensive reforms needed to fix the nation’s broken immigration laws, undermines current administration efforts to remove the most dangerous convicted criminals and to work collaboratively with state and local law enforcement agencies, and threatens the civil rights of all Americans by authorising state and local officials to collect information regarding any private citizen’s immigration status, at any time, for any reason, and without justification.’

Translation: this bill is flawed and stupid. So there.

This veto threat was issued only mere moments prior to Ms Steinle’s father appearing to testify before a House subcommittee regarding the threat which sanctuary cities pose to public safety. Mr Steinle testified in support of tighter immigration regulations and urged for the end of existing sanctuary cities.

The White House Press Secretary had previously dismissed the legislation a day before the announced veto threat.  Josh Earnest had stated that the Administration did not take the legislation proposed by the GOP ‘particularly seriously’. Again, in typical bi-partisan style (see: sarcasm) Earnest stated that  Republicans were guilty of inaction on comprehensive legislation on a federal level. On that note, Obama had merely used his (although this is a heavily debated topic) executive authority to attempt to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.

Furthermore, The White House had said how it would be preferable that in lieu of the House GOP bill, Congress should pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill from the last Congress. It also argued that public safety is already being handled by the Obama Administration’s new immigration enforcement priorities. And cue partisanship snipping, as those priorities have been blasted by Republicans as weakening public safety.

Well, the bill has passed the House, so it will be interesting to see how the White House responds, and how the bill proceeds. I can only hope that Ms Steinle’s death is not being exploited for political gain and media coverage – but we all know of my cynicism and belief that politics always seems to come before people for modern politicians, irrespective of nationality. And, even if this bill is meant with sincerity, and even if it could work and becomes law, it will not bring back Ms Steinle.

The most pressing issue seems to be of bureaucracy and a clash of state vs federal systems, rather than sanctuary cities. Bear in mind that the Federal Bureau of Prisons transferred Lopez-Sanchez to the San Francisco Police Department for an outstanding arrest warrant on drug charges before the fateful incident which cost Ms Steinle her life.

However, San Francisco authorities dropped the charges and released Lopez-Sanchez weeks later – despite a request from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to receive notification of his release, as Lopez-Sanchez was prioritised for deportation. Furthermore, even Democrats have argued that Lopez-Sanchez should have been deported, regardless of the sanctuary statutes in San Francisco.

On a personal level, I note with interest the admission in the Administration statement that America’s immigration laws are ‘broken’.

Obviously, the Obama Administration mean that the laws should be reformed to allow for greater amnesty and less deportation.  As someone who studied abroad in the US on a student visa, I can remember the stressful planning and organisation required to obtain it.

I spent around $500 in submitting the application, applying to register a SEVIS number, applying for a visa interview at the local US embassy, for the visa to be processed and finally for it to be delivered. I did not mind paying out – obviously, I had to in order to obtain the visa – as I wanted everything to be valid, legitimate and obviously all above board. I also spent a fortune in time: I had to fill out many a form, be interviewed to confirm my student status before I even left, I had to be questioned, my passport and visa scrutinised, my fingerprints examined and suitcase identified at US Pre-clearance in Dublin airport. Again, I accepted this because it was necessary to allow me to enter America and study there legally. Whilst there, though, I was always conscious that I was perhaps viewed as ‘yet another one of those international students’; goodness knows if anyone ever thought I was taking the place of an American citizen. For someone used to the free movement pillars of the EU, America was quite the shock to the system – especially when you remember that student visa are only valid for a certain period of time and you simply must exit the country prior to the visa validity end date. I was not allowed to be engaged in paid off-campus employment, hence why my internship in a local law firm was unpaid. Reading any legal small print regarding the opportunities to seek out campus employment, I read that the policy was one of ‘Americans first’ – again, such a contrast to the EU, as any fellow law student who has studied the EU constitution can tell you.

Some of my close friends in America are from immigrant families. I have heard stories of cash-strapped grandparents who saved up and waited patiently for years for their applications to be processed. Stories of struggle, as families were separated until the money was gathered to legally bring everyone over the border. Of the hardship faced and the prejudice endured, ‘you’re Hispanic. Did your parents come here legally?’ / ‘You’re not American, not really.’

Essentially, I know how immigrants are viewed in America – legal ones because that was me, and illegal ones because I heard and read the opinions of others.

I remember that a classmate enquired whether I felt ‘betrayed’. I asked them what they meant, and they elaborated: ‘you know, because you paid so much to be here legally, and will be kicked out when your visa expires and there are loads of illegals here who just crossed a border and will stay forever.’ NB – this type of view could be readily applied within the UK.

Conversely, I can recall how my fabulous PR professor once boldly stated before my class during a discussion: ‘Leah is the type of immigrant we like here in the States. She’s white, she’s Irish with a nice accent and speaks English.’ Cue awkward shuffles and stares. She had hit the wry nail on the sardonic head, and we all knew it.

Sanctuary cities do need to be scrutinised. Legislation needs to be introduced and debated. America needs to assess its current immigration laws, and consider reform. But at the heart of this, is human tragedy and suffering: of the Steinle family, who have lost a daughter, and those ‘illegals’ who only want a better future for their children. When we listen to sound bites and partisan bickering, the politics drowns out the reality. We would do well to remember that.

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