Immigration Returns to the Spotlight on Capitol Hill

Emotions run high at ‘sanctuary cities’ hearing.

A large photo of Kathryn 'Kate' Steinle who was killed by an illegal immigrant in San Francisco, is shown while her dad Jim Steinle testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, July 21, 2015 in Washington, DC.
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Colby Bermel
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Colby Bermel
July 21, 2015, 12:05 p.m.

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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