House clears bill banning 'sanctuary cities'

Lawmakers in the Iowa House debate an immigration enforcement bill Tuesday. (Caroline Cummings).

The Iowa House approved a bill Tuesday that would punish local entities by withholding state money if they fail to comply with federal immigration enforcement.

The ban on so-called "sanctuary cities" was approved in a 55-45 vote after hours of heated debate.

The bill would require local governments comply with federal immigration agents or risk losing state funding. Senate File 481 says these local entities cannot implement policies that "prohibit" or "discourage" the enforcement of federal immigration laws. These localities would need policies regarding enforcement of federal immigration laws in writing.

Supporters hail the bill as a measure to increase public safety, making several references to the case of Sarah Root, a Council Bluffs native who was killed by an undocumented immigrant in a drunk driving accident in January 2016.

"To sacrifice innocent Americans on the pyre of political correctness is unjust," said. Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs.

They also insisted that the bill isn't about singling out immigrants, but protecting all communities from violent criminals.

“This legislation is about the rule of law and the safety of all people, immigrants and citizens alike," said Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison. "It’s not going to change anything in most places [but] it will act as a prevention so that some places in Iowa don’t decide to become San Francisco.”

The U.S. Department of Justice called out San Francisco and 22 other cities and states earlier this year for being “sanctuary cities” and this bill is an effort to prohibit them in Iowa, even though there aren't any in the state.

But bill supporters argue Iowa City is on the same path, after the City Council adopted a policy last year saying local resources wouldn’t be used to enforce federal immigration law.

But opponents were sharply critical of the measure, calling it unnecessary and discriminatory. The bill has a provision barring discrimination that would prohibit a local entity from considering "race, skin color, language spoken, or national origin when enforcing immigration laws."

"This bill is a solution in search of a problem," said Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, echoing the comments of many Democrats who spoke out against the bill.

Supporters contend that the bill targets criminals and that someone pulled over for a traffic stop, for example, would be held harmless. But opponents argue that having such a law in place will still incite fear within immigrant communities.

“This bill tries to blame our crime on illegal immigrants or undocumented immigrants but that’s just not where most of our crime comes from. This is fear-mongering. This is a test of our moral judgment," said Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames.

A nonpartisan agency report recently found that school districts could be considered "local entities" under the law, meaning they would be subject to the law's requirements. Democrats on the floor questioned this, and Holt pointed to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy that qualifies schools as a "sensitive location."

"Sensitive locations," under this policy, include places schools, churches and medical treatment facilities. ICE is directed to not carry out enforcement actions at these locations, except in some urgent circumstances.

Holt said he talked with school boards and they aren't concerned. He said if he believed schools were threatened by the language in the bill, he would've proposed an amendment addressing it, but did not feel it was necessary after speaking to school officials and reviewing ICE policy.

The original bill that came from the Senate required local entities wait 12 months before reapplying for state funding. A change approved in the House Tuesday would lower that wait time from a year to 90 days, at which time a localities could get its funding restored if it repeals "sanctuary" policies.

The Senate is slated to debate the amended bill Wednesday.


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