In the never-ending national debate over immigration, there is at least one point of agreement between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans: If someone with a criminal record is arrested by local police, and that person is wanted for questioning by federal immigration authorities, the handover should be automatic.
In some cities, however, that doesn’t happen — and the consequences can be fatal. Last month, Juan Francisco Lopez- Sanchez, a Mexican man who had been deported five times, was arrested and accused of killing 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. Local police had recently released him from custody without honoring a detainer request by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, contrary to federal policy.
In 2013, San Francisco adopted a law, now being reconsidered, preventing authorities from honoring such requests unless the person had been convicted of a violent felony charge and was also facing another violent felony charge. Lopez-Sanchez didn’t meet those requirements.
That law has put so-called “sanctuary cities” in the crosshairs of conservatives — understandably so. Cooperating with federal authorities should not be a matter of discretion for cities. At the same time, the enforcement of immigration laws is a federal responsibility, and cities have an obligation to protect public safety.
When immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally fear contact with the government, everyone becomes less safe. When someone is afraid to report a robbery or shooting, criminals stay on the loose. When someone is afraid to go to the hospital, disease can spread. Citizens and legal residents, not just the undocumented, are the beneficiaries of policies that don’t allow local authorities to ask residents about their immigration status.
But that doesn’t mean authorities get to thumb their noses at federal agencies. Like it or not, a nation of laws must enforce its laws — or change them. U.S. immigration laws, as outdated and in need of reform as they are, cannot simply be ignored, and cities cannot refuse to cooperate when federal authorities seek to enforce them.
From 2008 until 2014, the Department of Homeland Security ran a program called Secure Communities, which required local law enforcement agencies to send the fingerprints of arrestees to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which then determined their immigration status. The program identified more than a half million noncitizens. But as deportations from the nation’s interior rose significantly under a Democratic president, so too did political opposition to the program from urban leaders.
In response, the Obama administration ended Secure Communities and replaced it with the Priority Enforcement Program. Under the new program, which began July 1, local authorities must still send fingerprints of arrestees. But the federal government will only seek custody of convicted criminals or other classes of known public safety threats who are prioritized for removal.
That’s a sensible approach. Just as prohibiting local authorities from asking about immigration status protects the public, so too does honoring federal detention requests for those with criminal records.
If San Francisco and other self-styled sanctuaries don’t get with the program, Washington will need to compel them. That could occur through the courts or — as congressional Republicans have proposed, and Kathryn Steinle’s family has supported — through the loss of federal funding.
Congress’s inability to deal with the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally is frustrating and dismaying. But cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities are making a bad situation worse.