When we awaken from the nightmare of this presidential administration, one lesson will be clear: Donald Trump was a master at exploiting our worst fears.
He has infused new drama into tired narratives that have served so many small-minded politicians before him.
Many Americans need a culprit to blame for the things they don’t like about their lives or about the ways society is changing, and for at least a century and a half, a favorite culprit has been immigrants.
Trump came to power as the man who would punish undocumented immigrants and punish those who refused to punish those immigrants. And now the House of Representatives has joined him in this pointless crusade.
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The House, by wide margins, quickly passed two bills that promise to crack down on criminal immigrants who are not lawfully in the country. The bills, known as Kate’s Law and the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, may face tougher scrutiny in the U.S. Senate. But they represent an attempt to legislate what Trump has been unable accomplish via executive order.
The sanctuary bill will yank federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities,” a nebulous and legally undefined term that applies to localities that limit their official involvement in immigration enforcement.
Kate’s Law is named for Kathryn Steinle, the 32-year-old woman who died after being shot by a Mexican man who was in the U.S. illegally and who had been previously deported. The bill seeks to increase penalties for people who re-enter the country after deportation.
We already have penalties for re-entry. And the bill does nothing to address a jurisdictional problem between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — one that may have something to do with Steinle’s alleged murderer being on the streets.
Local municipalities, federal rulings have held, are liable for damages when they hold people beyond the release date for the crime for which they were initially picked up. This might happen, say, if a person picked up for drunk driving is also suspected of an immigration violation and ICE asks that a person be held. If ICE is wrong, the municipality is on the hook for damages.
When ICE provides a warrant for the person they want held, not just a request, that’s another matter. Law enforcement, even in the places some label “sanctuary” locations, regularly comply.
It’s not that police and sheriffs are trying to let violent criminals escape justice. Rather, many law enforcement officials and associations oppose measures that would require them to enforce federal immigration law. Police do go after immigrants — those who are legally present and those who are not — when they commit crimes. There is no get-out-of-jail-free card for immigrants.
And most policing agencies do cooperate with federal officials almost daily on drug and human trafficking, in addition to a wide range of other investigations.
But they know that it is counterproductive to demonize entire immigrant communities on the basis of immigration status when their primary aim is to ferret out criminals.
Furthermore, U.S.-born people are far more likely to be criminals than immigrants, even ones who are not here legally.
That fact does not excuse crimes that immigrants have committed. But it is an affront to the Constitution to pass legislation that harms immigrants in general for the sins of the few. Go after the few. Sentence, convict and have them serve time for their crimes. Then deport.
But it is unnecessarily vengeful to draw more than the guilty into that loop.
Kate Steinle’s murder was an outrage, and it’s difficult to imagine the grief her family must feel. However, it is unconscionable for politicians to exploit this grief to sell a broad and damaging law to America — and one, ironically, that fails to propose a simple solution for keeping Americans safe.
Fixing immigration law is a matter of making better laws, not launching witch hunts. But try telling that to our president.