GOP senators grilled Obama administration officials Tuesday in the ongoing saga over immigration reform and so-called sanctuary cities, just moments after hearing emotional testimony from the relatives of murder victims.
“You’re serving an administration that consistently refuses to follow the law,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña. “If President Obama had the courage of his convictions “¦ the administration would stop releasing murderers and rapists. It is within your power to follow federal law.”
“We don’t release people willy-nilly,” Saldaña said in response to Cruz’s comments.
Saldaña fired back as well. When GOP Sen. David Vitter asked her when something will be done to reassure the victims’ relatives who testified Tuesday, Saldaña said “I presume when you all address comprehensive immigration reform.
“It’s not political. It’s essential legislative effort,” she added.
Saldaña refused to answer other politically-charged questions, saying “I decline to engage in this political discussion.”
Tuesday’s hearing comes as the issue of sanctuary cities, or jurisdictions that shelter undocumented immigrants from federal immigration-law enforcement, is picking up steam in Congress. The House is scheduled to vote on legislation that could come to the floor Thursday to withhold certain federal funding from state and local entities if they continue to defy U.S. immigration law.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley announced during the hearing that he is introducing similar legislation in the Senate, along with a mandatory-minimum five-year prison sentence for those who reenter the country after being deported.
This latter provision is supported by the parents of Kathryn Steinle, a San Francisco woman who was fatally shot earlier this month, allegedly by a Mexican man who had previously been convicted of seven felonies and deported five times. Steinle’s father, Jim, testified at the hearing, along with relatives of those killed in similar cases.
“Unfortunately, due to unjointed laws and basic incompetence of the government, the U.S. has suffered a self-inflicted wound in the murder of our daughter by the hand of a person that should have never been on the streets in this country,” Steinle said.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California also said she will be introducing legislation that would require state and local law enforcement to notify ICE officials when an undocumented immigrant is released from a detention center.
“It seems to me that a simple notification to ICE could have prevented Kate Steinle’s death,” Feinstein said.
Hypothetically, Saldaña said, if the city of San Francisco had notified ICE that Steinle’s alleged killer was being released from a detention facility, her agency would take action, presenting him to the jurisdiction’s U.S. attorney. Similar offenders could face up to 20 years in prison for reentry, depending on their background.
Sanctuary cities choose not to communicate with the government about certain immigrants in question by federal agencies. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar suggested that reporting between ICE and state and local entities should be mandatory.
Grassley also asked Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez about the apparent granting of deferred action to undocumented immigrants associated with criminal organizations. “There was action taken to correct and counsel individuals,” Rodriguez said. “We have undertaken extensive efforts to ensure that both the policy very clearly excludes gang members from deferred action, and the processes of our agency our fully understood. We have run the entire population of deferred action recipients back through the text database to identify all those instances where gang membership was not handled appropriately by our officers.”
Rodriguez added that out of 600,000 to 700,000 recipients, there were about 20 cases of gang membership. Eight of those, he said, would no longer benefit from deferred action. “The others have been turned over to ICE for appropriate handling, and several others continue to be adjudicated,” he said.
The panel heard testimony from the relatives of five murder victims. One such case involved the 2010 torture-murder of an 18-year-old Texas boy by his classmate, a Belizean apparently in the country illegally.
“I know you will sympathize with our story, but I want more than that. I want you to be angry that America’s borders are wide open,” the boy’s mother, Laura Wilkerson, said to lawmakers. “Realize that we are at war right here in this country.”
Emotions were high during the victims’ testimonies. Don Rosenberg of Unlicensed to Kill — an organization speaking out about deaths caused by unlicensed drivers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants — was in attendance during the hearing, and he made outbursts that resulted in him being escorted out of the hearing room by Capitol Police.
Speaking to reporters in the hallway as he was being handcuffed, Rosenberg took issue with the testimony of the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, who advocated for immigrant integration, among other policies. “He’s trying to make the illegal aliens the victims when they’re the ones who are the criminals,” Rosenberg said.
Kathryn Steinle’s father also spoke after the hearing. “We’re all very sad, and something needs to be done. The group’s voice there — I believe we were heard.”
This article has been updated.
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