A Republican proposal to deputize local police as immigration agents would improve public safety, law enforcement officials said Thursday.
But Democrats said it would reopen the fractious debate over whether states can be trusted to investigate a person’s citizenship status without engaging in racial profiling.
Those contrasting opinions were the focus of a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday about the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act sponsored by Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg.
Gowdy’s bill is one of several House Republican proposals designed to create a stricter version of immigration reform than a bill under debate in the Senate.
Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, endorsed Gowdy’s bill as protection against a repeat of the 1986 immigration law that granted legal status to 3 million illegal immigrants but failed to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Not only does the bill strengthen immigration enforcement by giving the federal government the tools it needs to enforce our laws, but it also ensures that where the federal government fails to act, states can pick up the slack,” Goodlatte said.
Gowdy’s bill would permit states to pass their own immigration laws and would give money to local law enforcement for extra training and resources they would need to prosecute immigration violations. It would punish cities or counties that refuse to help enforce federal immigration law by denying them federal law enforcement grants.
“I’ve worked with state and local prosecutors and state and local law enforcement, and if you’re good enough to do homicide cases, then I trust you to do immigration cases,” Gowdy said. “And it’s a shame that somebody else doesn’t.”
Gowdy’s bill, introduced last week, has reignited the debate over how much power states should have in identifying people in the country illegally. Arizona and a handful of other states have empowered local police and sheriffs to investigate citizenship status, but the U.S. Supreme Court determined last year that immigration policy is primarily a federal responsibility.
Gowdy’s proposal is on a fast track and is scheduled for a committee vote next week.
Randy Krantz, the commonwealth’s attorney in Bedford County, Va., praised provisions in Gowdy‘s bill that would make it easier to deport illegal immigrants with a record of driving under the influence. Krantz cited three Virginia cases in the last six years in which illegal immigrants with prior DUI convictions caused serious car accidents that killed two people and injured one.
He said Gowdy’s bill would have made those immigrants eligible for deportation after their initial convictions.
“In order to confront the dangers associated with illegal immigrants who are repeat offenders and harm innocent Americans and the criminal justice system, local authorities must be allowed to act,” Krantz said.
Republicans called several witnesses who shared dramatic stories of family members killed by illegal immigrants in gun crimes or DUI accidents.
Jamiel Shaw of Los Angeles said the illegal immigrant convicted of murdering his 17-year-old son, Jamiel Shaw Jr., in 2008 had been released from jail the day before after serving time for assault and battery on a police officer.
“He is now in San Quentin on death row waiting for his execution and my son’s body is now in the Inglewood mortuary in Inglewood waiting for justice,” said Shaw, his voice cracking.
Shaw said he supports provisions in Gowdy’s bill that would allow deportation of illegal immigrants who are members of a criminal gang.
Democrats noted that not all of the 11 million people in the country illegally are violent criminals, but they agreed that those who have committed violent crimes should be deported.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, took issue with a provision of Gowdy’s bill that he said would increase penalties for immigration violations. A similar proposal in 2005 sparked widespread protests.
“This puts undocumented immigrants all around the country in even greater danger,” Conyers said.
After the hearing, Gowdy said his bill would add new penalties for immigrants who violate the terms of their entry into the U.S. — such as someone who takes a job despite having a non-work visa — but wouldn’t change penalties for crossing the border illegally.
An attorney for the National Immigration Law Center testified against Gowdy’s proposal.
Expanding the role of state and local law enforcement in immigration enforcement would “create an environment of rampant racial profiling and unlawful discrimination and breed distrust of law enforcement, which decreases public safety,” said Karen Tumlin, managing attorney with the nonpartisan organization that advocates for low-income immigrants and their families.
The legislation also would expand the federal program that allows local law enforcement to enter cooperative agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. Gowdy’s bill would bar the Department of Homeland Security from refusing requests to enter such agreements.
The bill would cost taxpayers. In addition to the grants to local and state law enforcement, it calls for increasing space used to detain illegal immigrants and would add 2,500 ICE detention enforcement officers, 60 ICE attorneys, 5,000 deportation officers, and 700 support staff.
Other parts of the bill would deny changes to someone’s immigration status until background and security checks are complete, expand the visa security program, and provide body armor and weapons to ICE immigration enforcement agents and deportation officers.