After the killing of Kate Steinle, shot dead on a pier in San Francisco by an illegal immigrant who had been convicted of seven felonies and deported five times, it would seem almost a no-brainer that Congress would seek to correct the situation in which self-declared "sanctuary cities" like San Francisco defy federal law by refusing to hand over criminal immigrants to federal authorities. After all, who could possibly defend the city's actions? Even Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer have condemned San Francisco's efforts to shield multiple-felon Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Why not just enact legislation to force San Francisco to obey federal law?
It turns out things are not that simple.
Republican Tom Cotton, with a number of allies, has introduced a bill in the Senate that would deny federal immigration and police funding to cities that defy federal law. "It is unacceptable that cities would issue ordinances that explicitly aim to frustrate federal immigration laws that are supposed to keep illegal immigrant felons off the streets," Cotton said in a statement. "U.S. taxpayers shouldn't be expected to support such misguided local policies that put their safety in jeopardy."
Would the Senate actually pass such a bill? More specifically, would all 54 Senate Republicans support it, and would enough Democrats join in to put the bill over the 60-vote threshold? And what about the House? I asked several Republicans on the Hill, House and Senate, some members, some staff, none of whom wanted to speak for attribution. What I got was a picture of a complex situation in which unanimous GOP support is not guaranteed, and Democratic support even dicier. The consensus: Congress might be pressured to do something — or more accurately, to appear to be doing something — that in the end won't mean much.
From Senate Republican 1:
"I think you're going to see is a spectrum of positions on what to do. Nobody can really, politically, say nothing should be done. But what you're going to see is a lot of people push for something along the lines of simply making sure states, counties, and cities comply with ICE requests. That, while it should happen, would hardly solve the problem, let alone eliminate sanctuary cities. Law enforcement would still be hamstrung, illegal aliens could still receive benefits in these localities, and the only increase in deportations might be from those who had committed very serious crimes — while those who had committed lesser crimes would be allowed to stay, and some would go on to commit more serious crimes.
"That said, that's what I think Congress is going to try to do: Pass a really weak bill that would get massive bipartisan support, but change little. A big show vote everyone can pat themselves on the back for and say, look, we listened, and we did something. I think the key thing to look for is the details of and differences between the sanctuary city bills that get introduced in the days ahead. I believe that any bill that gets significant Democratic support will be a bill that changes little. But I do think a bill could be written that could hold Republicans together while going further than simply requiring sanctuary cities to comply with ICE requests. More to come next week, I bet..."
From Senate Republican 2:
"ICE already does not place detainers on, or deport, most potentially dangerous aliens. ICE even frees convicted violent felons and killers. Having all ICE detainers mandatory is a floor, not a ceiling. If all aliens in jails were sent home, thousands of American lives would be saved. We don't have to wait until they commit a felony; they're here illegally."
From House Republican 1:
"I think it's unclear what may happen. San Francisco might be a game-changer on this issue, but it's no certainty. This topic has historically broken down along the lines of supporters versus opponents of broader immigration reform, but what happened here could give moderate Republicans the space to support some kind of targeted action against these polices. Moving anything on this issue as a standalone bill will invite criticism from the left — and traditionally has invited criticism of moderates as well — that we are only moving enforcement measures. But in light of this debacle, there may be an effort to move a targeted bill. A number of rank-and-file member discussions are ongoing at the moment. I'm told the tricky part is balancing the need to potentially protect victims and witnesses that come in contact with law enforcement while ensuring that the truly bad actors get handed over to the authorities to get deported."
From House Republican 2:
"I think the leadership is scared of doing a sanctuary cities bill. If a bill got to the floor such as the Cotton bill linking federal law enforcement grants to following immigration law, it would pass with flying colors. But I think the leadership sees it as something that would lead the media to say Republicans are against immigrants. I personally think it would be terrible politics for Democrats to oppose it, but I bet the D.C.-based consultants who influence the leadership disagree."
That's not necessarily a representative sample of views, but it does suggest a lot of Republicans will want to act. And if they do, they will at least take the minimal step of pressuring cities to report multiple felons like Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez. The question, then, is whether enough Democrats would go along. And then, if such a bill passes House and Senate, whether President Obama would sign even a modest, limited measure to pressure sanctuary cities to obey the law.