Bay State lawmakers divide over ‘sanctuary’ issue

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WASHINGTON The Democrats who make up the Massachusetts delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives walk in lockstep on many issues, but when it comes to immigration, one toes a different line.

Rep. Bill Keating, a former Norfolk County prosecutor whose ninth district encompasses much of the South Shore and all of Cape Cod and the islands, was the only one of the nine House members from the Bay State to back a measure blocking certain federal grants and law-enforcement funding for “sanctuary cities.” That designation is used for municipalities that refuse to dedicate local resources to enforcing federal immigration law.

Keating’s July 23 vote may not have been all that surprising, as it was consistent with views he highlighted in 2010, during his first congressional campaign. At the time, the former prosecutor opposed granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.

In a recent interview, Keating said he’s always been a proponent of the rule of law.

“I just think you can’t have mayors, city councilors, or, interestingly enough, town clerks disregarding federal law,” Keating said.

The measure he supported was introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and called for punishing “sanctuary cities.” Hunter offered the bill just weeks after 32-year-old Kate Steinle was shot dead July 1 on a San Francisco pier. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a Mexican man who faces charges in the shooting, had previously been deported from the U.S. five times. He had been released from a San Francisco jail prior to the killing, even though federal immigration authorities had asked for his detention.

“If cities and states are allowed to flout federal law then the strides we made in civil rights would never have occurred,” Keating said. “Remember, decades ago we had cities that didn’t want to adhere to federal law on that issue.

“Even though I’m for comprehensive immigration reform, and have been, you cannot turn to local officials using their own discretion when it comes to federal law.”

During deliberations over Hunter’s bill, Rep. Jim McGovern, whose 2nd congressional district includes Worcester, labeled the proposal as “reeking of prejudice.”

“Republicans would rather demonize these cities and local law enforcement agencies and force them to squander scarce local resources on immigration enforcement, instead of local policing,” McGovern said, according to a transcript of the House  floor debate.

Worcester, the largest city in McGovern’s district, does not have an official sanctuary city policy but its police department does not share arrest information with immigration enforcement authorities.

“This bill is just more of the same, old, divisive Republican anti-immigrant formula,” McGovern said on the floor. “It is meant to punish cities that don’t embrace the views of anti-immigrant extremists.”

In March, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department asked the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to transfer Lopez-Sanchez to the city to face an outstanding drug-related charge. The Mexican was being held by federal authorities for felony re-entry into the U.S. Despite an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requiring Lopez-Sanchez to be held, jail authorities released him April 15 because local prosecutors had dropped the old drug charge.

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi indicated that federal authorities failed to provide a legal reason to hold the Mexican. Under the city’s sanctuary city policy, the lack of an active arrest warrant for Lopez-Sanchez meant that he couldn’t be held.

In the days following Steinle’s killing, Mirkarimi doubled-down on his support for sanctuary city policies. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Mirkarimi said the policy makes cities safer.

“We’re a world-renowned city with a large immigrant population and of that population is a population that is also here undocumented,” Mirkarimi said. “We want to build trust with that population and our sanctuary city laws have allowed us to do that.”

Last week however, Mirkarimi joined an ignominious list when he became just the third out of 34 incumbent San Francisco sheriffs since 1850 to lose a reelection bid. Mirkarimi, who was beset by scandals soon after winning the office in 2011, including a 2012 domestic violence conviction, garnered just 33 percent of the vote compared with victor Vicki Hennessy’s 61 percent.

In a floor speech last week, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican running for his party’s presidential nomination, linked Mirkarimi’s support for sanctuary city policies with his ouster.

“Just yesterday, the voters of San Francisco voted to replace the sheriff who had defended the sanctuary city policy,” Cruz told his colleagues. “That is a striking statement of where the American people are on this issue.

“For the people of San Francisco to throw out of office the sheriff responsible for the policies that led directly to Kate Steinle’s murder indicates that even in the bluest of blue cities and the bluest of blue states, the American people are tired of politicians standing with violent, criminal, illegal aliens,” Cruz said from the floor.

Cruz then took Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the leader of his party in the chamber, and other Democrats to task for blocking a Republican proposal to bar federal funds from cities that have adopted sanctuary policies. The measure also called for a new policy known as “Kate’s Law,” created in Steinle’s memory, which would establish mandatory minimum five-year prison sentences for illegal aliens with criminal records who are caught trying to reenter the U.S. after being deported.

“If Kate’s Law had been passed 5 years ago, Kate Steinle would still be alive,” said Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant. “That means every Democrat who stands up and blocks Kate’s Law needs to be prepared to explain why standing with violent, criminal, illegal aliens is more important than protecting American citizens.”

Incarcerating immigrants convicted under the law would “cost over $3 billion,” Reid said.

“This is yet another attack on the immigrant,” he added.

Days before Cruz spoke on the issue, a group in California launched a ballot initiative they hope will prompt voters to do what lawmakers haven’t enact a statewide law requiring all law enforcement agencies to comply with federal detainers.

Some Massachusetts lawmakers want the Bay State to go in the opposite direction. Earlier this year, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) and state Rep. Evandro Carvalho (D-Dorchester) introduced a measure that would make Massachusetts a “sanctuary state.”

Called the Trust Act, the proposal would make it unlawful for local police to hold someone who has been arrested solely because of an immigration detainer.

Other Bay State legislators would follow Hunter’s lead. A measure repeatedly submitted by Merrimack Valley state Rep. Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica) would bar cities and towns with sanctuary policies from receiving state local aid funding.

Lombardo first introduced his measure in January 2013, long before Steinle’s killing. His proposal failed to gain traction. In April of that year he brought up the bill again, in the form of an amendment during budget discussions, to no avail. It failed by a 125-31 vote. The reintroduced proposal is currently mired before the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government, where no hearing has been set.

“I will continue to advocate for this,” Lombardo said Friday. “I will continue to file it through whatever means necessary to at least trigger a discussion, even if I have to file it again as a budget amendment.”

Illegal immigration costs the state roughly $2 billion annually, Lombardo said. Data collected by the Federation for American Immigration Reform indicates Massachusetts spent $1.86 billion supporting illegal immigrants in 2009.

“That money could be going towards education, health care, roads and new buildings,” Lombardo said. “That money could be helping the same sanctuary cities that keep looking to the state for more assistance.”

Asked why his proposals have never even reached the public hearing stage, required to move toward a full legislative debate, Lombardo pointed to Beacon Hill partisanship.

“Undoubtedly that’s the reason,” he said. “I guess sometimes I have to accept the fact I see the world very differently than some of my colleagues on Beacon Hill do.”

When told about Keating’s vote in favor of the federal version of Lombardo’s bill, it came as a pleasant surprise.

“I honestly had no idea,” he said.

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or @evanmlips on Twitter.