WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — After President Trump issued his executive order to withhold federal funding to sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, state houses around the country gained new momentum and are now considering their own measures to block jurisdictions from providing a safe-haven for illegal immigrants.
Last week, the Cincinatti City Council voted to become a sanctuary city, triggering pushback from state legislators. In response to the move, State Representative Candice Keller and Treasurer Josh Mandel drafted a bill that would hold city officials accountable for crimes committed by illegal immigrants in sanctuary jurisdictions.
Late in January, Colorado State Rep. Dave Williams made waves as a Latino lawmaker introducing legislation that would allow victims of certain crimes committed by illegal immigrants to sue the politicians that provided safe haven. If the law is passed, local officials can be held liable if they uphold sanctuary policies and refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and federal immigration law.
"If these politicians create the environment, then they need to own it. They need to have skin in the game," Williams said in an interview.
Colorado cities could already be facing big losses if Trump's executive order to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities is implemented. The mayors of major sanctuary cities including Denver, Boulder and Aurora have all issued statements warning they could lose hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding if the executive order is carried out.
In Maine and Alaska, state legislators are also reportedly considering the Colorado proposal to allow criminal proceedings against local officials who support sanctuary laws.
In Texas, the state legislature is now in the final phase of ushering through a tough new law against sanctuary cities. Among the provisions, the bill would allow criminal charges to be brought against city or county officials who do not comply with federal immigration law. Under the law, any county elected official, including a sheriff, would face immediate removal from office if convicted.
The Texas bill, which will also cut off state funds for sanctuary cities like Austin, passed the state Senate last week and the House is scheduled to vote on the bill early this week. Gov. Greg Abbott has already announced a cut in state funds to Travis County, because of their policy of regularly rejecting ICE detainer requests.
"These actions were primarily by the threat of the loss of federal funding," said Dave Ray, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) said of the state bills.
Though some experts question the extent to which Trump will be able to unilaterally cut federal grants to sanctuary cities without an act of Congress, new estimates suggest that the top 10 U.S. sanctuary cities could lose as much as $2.7 billion if Trump fully implements his executive order.
"The threat of enforcement is probably the strongest tool we have against illegal immigration, so if the states are on the same page as the federal government, it’s a better, and safer overall approach for the nation," he said.
Ray applauded the steps being taken at the state level, noting that bills have now been introduced in 24 state legislatures to curb sanctuary cities, demonstrating a willingness to change the immigration system and improve cooperation with federal authorities.
"The state and local level is the best place for this cooperation to start, since state and local law enforcement will be far more likely to come into contact with an illegal immigrant, or potential terrorist, than a federal agent," Ray explained. "A combination of effective state and local action, in tandem with federal enforcement, is really the only way to regain control of illegal immigration."
Equally important in state and federal cooperation is ensuring that local officers, sheriffs and police chiefs are able to work within the immigrant communities without igniting the fear of unreasonable deportation.
Former acting director of ICE, John Sandweg explained that any legislation, either from the federal or local level that impedes officers' ability to do their job and manage cooperation within the community is problematic.
"I don't like it when politicians are telling law enforcement how to police their areas at that level of detail, whether it's to say don't give anyone to ICE or give everyone to ICE. Public safety and law enforcement suffer at the at level of interference," he warned. "The core of any successful police organization is cooperation; you don't solve cases without getting people to cooperate with you."
In that context, having laws, like those being considered in Texas, Colorado, and Ohio that would hold a police officer liable for future crimes committed by an illegal not turned over to ICE could hinder an officer's ability to engage the community.
"It can create a chilling effect on reporting," Sandweg said, fueling the perception in migrant communities that if they engage with local law enforcement, their families will be targeted for sweeps, raids, and deportation.
Asked whether the heightened political rhetoric around sanctuary policies will backfire, Sandweg said it absolutely will. "The more attention this gets and the more the perception is that ICE is now going to go on massive sweeps, I definitely think that has a chilling effect on the reporting of crime, no doubt."
Some opponents of the new bills to crack down on sanctuary cities see it as political posturing by individuals who hope to benefit from Trump's popular immigration message. Despite Trump's political opponents trying to use his tough anti-immigration platform against him during the election, nearly two-thirds of his voters cast their ballot on Trump's promise to slow immigration, enforce existing laws, and prevent criminals from entering the country.
Lynn Tramonte is the director of Ohio's Voice and deputy director of America's Voice, an immigration rights group with chapters around the country. Tramonte argued that while the Ohio bill to criminalize those who defend a city's sanctuary status is just a political tactic, and will not solve the country's immigration problems.
"It's purely political. They're trying to jump on the Trump bandwagon," Tramonte said of bill sponsors Mandel and Keller.
The Ohio bill has a lot of problems, Tramonte argued and it will likely be challenged in court if it passes. "The number one problem is they are making up lies about immigrants and scaring people," she said, adding that the state lawmakers are "just going through the Trump playbook on immigration and fear-mongering because they're thinking about the next election."
Those who support ending sanctuary city policies have pointed to a number of tragic and preventable felonies committed by illegal immigrants slated for removal by ICE, and President Trump warned during a recent interview that sanctuary cities "breed crime."
Those claims about crime rates have been disputed in recent reports by the Center for American Progress and the Washington Post's Fact-Check, who claim that sanctuary cities do not have higher rates of violent crimes, murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, and property crimes than non-sanctuary jurisdictions.
For Tramonte, working with members of Ohio's migrant communities has been troubling in recent weeks, as she reports a feelings of "extreme anxiety" among many immigrants.
That anxiety has been fueled in part by a week of ICE enforcement raids, targeting 600 undocumented immigrants across the country. According to John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, the enforcement actions were "routine." The raids specifically focused on illegals who "pose a threat to public safety, have been charged with criminal offenses, have committed immigration violations or have been deported and re-entered the country illegally," Kelly said.
Within Trump's executive order dealing with sanctuary cities, there was also a requirement for DHS to release weekly statistics to highlight the actions of cities, counties, and states who refuse to cooperate with federal immigration law. On a weekly basis, DHS is now responsible for documenting all the instances where a sanctuary jurisdiction declined an ICE detainer, preventing the agency from pursuing an individual for violating immigration law.
These reports could provide ammunition for states pursuing legislation to criminally prosecute those who intentionally violate immigration enforcement laws, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.
"We may see more of those cases as ICE begins releasing these weekly reports," she noted. "For the first time, the public will have relatively real time information on who is getting released and where."
As the debate over sanctuary city policy heats up in state legislatures and potentially in state and federal courts, and Trump threatens to withhold funding, DHS still does not yet have a hard definition of a sanctuary city. When asked to provide a definition of a sanctuary city during a tour of the U.S.-Mexican border, Secretary Kelly told law enforcement officials, "I don't have a clue."
"If you talk to a lot of police chiefs and look at a lot of these sanctuary policies, many of them are really benign and minor in scope," said Sandweg. "At the end of the day a lot of this is political."