Solving the Sanctuary Cities Problem | Commentary

Dangerous policies have deadly consequences. We were reminded of this recently when a young woman in San Francisco, Kathryn Steinle, was tragically murdered by an illegal immigrant. Every person who has weighed in on the recent killing of Steinle has described her death as tragic. And avoidable. Unfortunately, that is where agreement ends.

The city of San Francisco has blamed the administration for not doing more to override its own lawless policies. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have blamed the city’s policies for the release of the shooter, even though the administration has adopted similar policies that release criminal immigrants. And in a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson refused to answer my question about whether sanctuary cities are violating federal law. They clearly are.

The federal government has been dealing with the problem of sanctuary cities for decades. That is precisely the reason we addressed this problem in 1996 legislation I authored with some of the strongest immigration enforcement measures ever passed. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act made it illegal for these sanctuary jurisdictions to withhold information about immigration status that might lead to deportations.

Still, sanctuary cities have violated this law with the release of thousands of illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes. And the law also is routinely ignored and not enforced by this administration.

Outside of the political rhetoric, there are real steps that can be taken to make our country safer and to address underlying problems in our justice system. But only if we demand public safety be put above politics.

I support legislation such as Rep. Duncan Hunter’s Enforce the Law for Sanctuary Cities Act. It is appropriately named, as it recognizes that sanctuary cities violate current laws. In the wake of tragedies such as the death of Steinle, legislation like this is a good first step to reaffirm and strengthen the enforcement of existing laws.

Another step that should be taken is to reverse Obama administration policies that have actively undermined current laws. As far back as 2011 and 2012, the Obama administration changed policies to prevent the apprehension and deportation of illegal immigrants. ICE stopped requiring local law enforcement to hold illegal immigrants beyond their sentences, which has allowed thousands to be released before immigration officials can take them into custody.

As a result of these policy changes, tens of thousands of criminal immigrants who should have been deported were released into our communities. According to crime data released by ICE, out of more than 30,000 criminal convictions associated with illegal immigrants in 2014, nearly 14,000 were convicted of driving under the influence. Homicides totaled more than 150. Nearly 8,500 were convicted on serious drug charges and more than 1,000 sexual offenses and assaults.

And the executive actions the president announced last fall did more than give amnesty and work permits to 5 million illegal immigrants. They also abolished the successful Secure Communities program.

Bringing back the Secure Communities program would reinstate valuable partnerships between local law enforcement and ICE. Since 2008 local officials, many in my home state of Texas, have used the Secure Communities program to remove almost 400,000 convicted criminal aliens. Those identified under the program are often repeat offenders and have committed serious crimes such as aggravated felonies, theft, assault, drunk and drugged driving, and even murder. President Barack Obama ended this program last fall and replaced it with a weaker one intended to result in fewer deportations.

If Americans want to take even more serious steps to force sanctuary cities into compliance with federal law, they should insist upon passage of HR 1148, the Michael Davis Jr. in Honor of State and Local Law Enforcement Act. I am a co-author of this legislation, which passed in the House Judiciary Committee this past March. It would require local cooperation with federal agents and stop criminal justice funding from going to sanctuary jurisdictions if they ignore the law.

We must enforce — not undermine — current law, while strengthening federal agents’ ability to enforce the law. These are the simple steps we can take if we prioritize public safety over political agendas. Americans are waiting.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

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