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Grassley takes aim at sanctuary cities

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | AUGUST 03, 2015 5:00 AM

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A number of county sheriffs in Iowa may find themselves with difficult decisions if Congress passes pending immigration legislation.

More than 26 departments across the state would have to change their policies at a risk of getting sued, or stick with their practices and potentially risk losing federal funding.

Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have seized on a homicide in San Francisco as a vehicle to push back against cities and counties that, in their eyes, provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.

Locally, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office policy of refusing to hold suspects requested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials would put it at risk of losing certain federal grants under bills proposed by Grassley and Republican colleagues in the House.

While “sanctuary city” is a loose term, it has been used to apply to cities such as New York City and San Francisco, which have specific laws aimed at undocumented immigrants, and more broadly to other jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

San Francisco became the epicenter for the debate after Kathryn Steinle was killed on July 1 by a suspect who had been deported from the United States five times. Despite a request for notification, local authorities following a sanctuary policy did not notify federal immigration officials when they released the man on probation before the homicide.

Johnson County Sheriff Lt. John Good defended his department’s policy from criticism rooted in the San Francisco case. He said complying with federal immigration officials would mean potentially violating the civil liberties of a suspect.

“We don’t want to house them any longer than we need to,” he said.

Keeping people suspected of being undocumented, Good said, would put the department at risk of violating a suspect’s civil liberties, which could, in turn, put the county at risk of a lawsuit. Those concerns led the department to change its policy in May 2014.

Grassley said county sheriffs nationwide have been “intimidated” by such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union. The Iowa ACLU sent a letter to each county sheriff’s office in the state calling the legality of holding immigrants into question.

“Sheriffs shouldn’t be intimidated by anybody, because if the sheriffs are intimidated by anybody, then their citizens aren’t going to be protected,” said Grassley during an Aug. 29 call with Iowa reporters. He is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

While it is not immediately clear how much in federal funds each department could lose, Good said he does not think losing federal funds would change the department’s stance.

Most county sheriffs in the state changed their policies after a federal court ruling called the legality of detainer requests into question. Now, Johnson County and 26 others across the state require a judge’s order or signature to comply with the request.

Grassley dismisses such concerns and finds the debate ripe with what he labels irony.

“The administration has said very loudly that immigration law is federal law,” he said. “Well then, it is quite ironic when this administration would back sanctuary cities when these people are not willing to help the federal government enforce immigration law.”

Under Grassley’s bill and a handful of others in Congress, the federal government could withhold certain funds if  jurisdictions, such as a county sheriff’s office, fail to honor immigration officials’ requests.

Unlike other bills, Grassley’s only applies the policy to law-enforcement authorities who fail to honor requests for criminal undocumented immigrants or possible undocumented immigrants deemed to be a national threat.

Despite the difference, the core of his bill — targeting sanctuary cities — remains the same. The House passed broader legislation 241-179 on July 23 with six Democrats supporting it.

News reports indicate President Obama would veto the House legislation.

Rep. David Loebsack, D-Iowa, voted against the bill. In a statement before the vote, Loebsack said comprehensive immigration reform must be passed and that smaller bills such as those addressing sanctuary cities are not the way to go.

“I am concerned that a piecemeal approach is insufficient to address the many issues facing our broken immigration system,” he said in a statement to The Daily Iowan. “Congress must stop the political gridlock and move forward on a plan that works for local municipalities as well as enforces our federal laws and keeps families safe.”


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