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House passes 'sanctuary city' bill, reigniting immigration debate

House approves 'sanctuary city' measure mostly on party lines.

House Republicans approved legislation Thursday that would strip millions in federal funding from "sanctuary cities" such as Baltimore that have adopted immigrant-friendly policies, a response to a killing in San Francisco that has thrust immigration back into the political forefront.

The 241-179 vote, mostly along party lines, came three weeks after 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was shot to death on a San Francisco pier. The suspect in the case had been released from a local jail despite a request from immigration authorities to hold him until they arrived.

Opponents of illegal immigration have focused their attention since then on jurisdictions that restrict the deportation of immigrants.

There is no single definition of "sanctuary city," but the term has been applied to Baltimore since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed an executive order in 2012 that prohibits city employees, including police, from asking residents about their immigration status.

Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, has made expanding the city's immigrant population a focus of an effort to stem a decades-long slide in population.

Republicans, including presidential candidate Donald Trump, say such efforts fly in the face of the nation's immigration laws, and helped lead to Steinle's death.

"For the safety of our cities and neighborhoods, criminals that are deported must remain deported," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican. "Kate Steinle died because an illegal immigrant who should have been deported and should have remained deported was granted de facto amnesty."

Democrats said Republicans were caving to anti-immigrant hysteria. They noted that several law enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the Major County Sheriffs' Association, opposed the bill.

Leaders at some police departments, including Baltimore's, say that requiring officers to enforce federal immigration law would compromise their ability to respond to crime because undocumented residents would become afraid to work with them.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said "real security means building trust between police and immigrant communities."

"We have to have strategies on the table that focus on the small percentage of violent offenders that engage in crime, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach that alienates entire communities," spokesman Kevin Harris said.

The chances of the bill becoming law this year are slim. Similar legislation faces a more difficult path in the Senate, and President Barack Obama threatened Thursday to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

If the House measure were approved, officials said, Baltimore could lose more than $4 million in federal grant money over several years. Those funds are used to hire and train police officers, among other programs.

Harris rejected the "sanctuary city" label for Baltimore. Depending on how the term is defined, it could be applied to several hundred jurisdictions in the nation.

Many have passed measures to address confusing areas of immigration law that have arisen in part because Congress has failed to approve a comprehensive overhaul of a system that both parties say is broken.

Obama has sought such an overhaul, but the parties are at odds over the specifics — a stalemate that had moved the issue to the back burner.

Advocates on both sides of the issue, meanwhile, are battling in court over a series of executive actions signed by Obama last year that would have deferred deportation for millions of immigrants. The likely outcome of that legal struggle remains unclear.

Members of both parties presented the issue in black-and-white terms on the House floor on Thursday, but the relationship between local police and federal immigration authorities is actually far more nuanced.

Republicans criticized cities and states that decline to honor immigration "detainers" — requests by federal agents to hold immigrants suspected of a crime beyond when they would ordinarily be released. But an increasing number of federal courts have found that those so-called holds violate the Constitution.

The Obama administration said last year it was fundamentally changing how the federal government makes those requests. Those changes are just now taking effect.

The House legislation would deny grants to local and state governments that decline to share information with federal law enforcement agencies about immigrants in detention, as is required by federal law. Most local governments in Maryland — including Baltimore — still share information with the federal government.

Gov. Martin O'Malley imposed strict rules in 2014 to limit when immigrants may be held in Baltimore's state-run jail — an effort he sometimes highlights in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Concerns expressed by the state attorney general's office about the constitutionality of the practice led most of Maryland's large counties to follow suit.

Another provision of the House bill would cut off grants to cities that have imposed policies that prohibit "local law enforcement officials from gathering information regarding the citizenship or immigration status … of any individual," which appears to cover Baltimore's executive order. But just how much leeway local police have had to enforce immigration law has long been a murky issue, and Rawlings-Blake's administration has maintained that the order did not change existing city policy.

Sirine Shebaya, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, has studied the issue closely.

"Cities like Baltimore and police agencies across the country have limited irrelevant inquiries into immigration status because they rightly believe that that improves public safety and helps them do their jobs better," she said. "A federal law that essentially forces cities to choose between federal funding and community policing would do nothing but undermine those public safety gains."

The legislation split the state's congressional delegation along party lines, with all Democrats opposed and Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, the only Republican, the lone supporter. Both Democrats running for Senate, Reps. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, issued statements criticizing the bill.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said he is concerned the measure would "tear apart the relationship between law enforcement and our communities."

"Instead of working on thoughtful policymaking, Republicans prefer to depict all immigrants in this country as violent criminals," the Baltimore Democrat said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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