DOJ Indicates Willingness to Crack Down on Sanctuaries; Critics Unconvinced

Published on February 29th, 2016

By Joe Guzzardi
February 29, 2016

Nearly nine months after the Kate Steinle’s tragic murder in sanctuary city San Francisco, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Obama administration would take steps to defund cities that don’t cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers. More than 300 sanctuary cities ignore immigration officials’ orders even though a 1996 federal law makes it illegal for cities, counties and states to not share immigration status information upon request.
Under Lynch’s proposed directive, when immigration authorities seek deportation, the federal Bureau of Prisons will take prisoners completing their sentences into custody, even if local or state officials want the immigrant for prosecution or to finish a state or local sentence. Immigration officials have the option to defer to state or local authorities under the condition that, said Lynch, ICE would get the individual back at the end of an adjudication “so that the deportation process could go underway."
Sanctuary cities have long been a hotly debated topic in Congress, and came to a boiling point when five-time deported, seven-time convicted felon and Mexican national Juan Francisco Sanchez-Lopez shot and killed Steinle in broad daylight. The San Francisco Sheriff’s office released Sanchez-Lopez ten weeks earlier because, according to its own city ordinance, it hadn’t received a court ordered warrant.
The risk that sanctuaries pose to citizens is huge. The Center for Immigration Studies found that about 1,000 criminals are released on average each month. Between January 1 and September 30, 2014 local sanctuaries released 9,295 alien offenders that ICE had targeted for deportation. More than 600 criminals were released at least twice.
In response to public outcry and absent federal action, some states have acted on their own. North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory signed a new law that banned sanctuary ordinances, barred unverifiable forms of identification, and required full cooperation with ICE. Texas Governor Greg Abbott threatened to withhold monies from sanctuary cities and promised to introduce anti-sanctuary legislation during the next legislative session. In California, concerned citizens have organized to pass a ballot initiative that would overturn the state’s 2014 sanctuary law and mandate that in all cases local officials cooperate with ICE. 
Lynch’s statement pleasantly surprised enforcement advocates who are cautiously optimistic that the Justice Department’s new common sense approach might save lives. But because the Obama administration has actively dismantled immigration laws, the hopeful have adopted a wait and see attitude.
Major concerns linger among the doubters.  First, Lynch’s statement only suggested that DOJ would “investigate” sanctuary cities which receive federal funding but that still might be rejecting ICE detainers. Such investigations would only be initiated upon “credible evidence” that specific, applicable federal laws have been broken. Skeptics find the language vague, and possibly a smoke screen to give the impression that the administration has realized the dangers that sanctuary cities pose. To measure the new policy’s effectiveness, House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) asked for quarterly reports updating how many cases have been successfully resolved, and to ensure that the Bureau of Prisons’ involvement isn’t merely symbolic.
Lynch’s apparent change of direction on sanctuaries has at least one immigration advocate supporter. Doris Meissner, the former Immigration and Naturalization Services commissioner who is now an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute said that it’s hard to argue against a measure that’s aimed at removing criminal aliens who have served their sentences.
The public has grown weary of the White House’s immigration permissiveness, amnesties, and harboring criminals in sanctuary cities. If Lynch’s tiny step in the right direction is successful, it could help save American lives and would prove a valuable model for the incoming administration.

Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]

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