Trump immigration, sanctuary city policies face first big legislative test

Washington Post

President Donald Trump on Wednesday highlighted what he called the dangers posed by illegal immigrants ahead of an important House vote on two bills aimed at cracking down on those who commit crimes and cities that refuse to help deport them.

Appearing with families that were victimized by immigrants, Trump called on lawmakers to "honor grieving American families" by sending the "lifesaving measures" to his desk quickly. The House action marks the first major legislative test of tougher immigration laws under Trump, who has tried to impose sweeping executive orders to limit immigration and ramp up enforcement.

"You lost the people that you love because our government refused to enforce our nation's immigration laws," Trump told the families in the Cabinet Room. "For years, the pundits, journalists, politicians in Washington refused to hear your voices but on Election Day 2016 your voices were heard all across the entire world. No one died in vain I can tell you that."

The president's focus on immigration, a day after Republican leaders in the Senate postponed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, illustrated the White House's eagerness to get back onto comfortable footing. Trump has consistently employed strong rhetoric to paint immigrants - both those in the country illegally and some who arrive through legal channels - as potentially dangerous.

"The president's involvement has brought the pace of this up, and we're doing it this week because he wants it to happen," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a fierce advocate for strict immigration laws who co-sponsored the bills set to be passed Thursday. "The members are ready for it, too."

The House votes - coming six months into Trump's presidency - are also highlighting the limits of congressional action and the frustrations of conservatives who expected much more to have been done already.

Trump's executive actions have had limited success. His travel ban on refugees and immigrants from several majority-Muslim countries was held up in federal court until the Supreme Court ruled this week that some of the provisions could be enacted while the Justices prepare for a hearing on the ban in the fall.

Arrests of undocumented immigrants have spiked under Trump compared to the final couple of years under his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who had sought to shield more immigrants from deportations. Illegal border crossings have fallen significantly since Trump took office, which immigrant rights advocates have said could be an effect of Trump's harsh rhetoric about illegal immigrants.

But on the legislative front, there has been little activity. Trump had suggested in February that he would be open to a comprehensive immigration reform bill that eluded presidents George W. Bush and Obama, but gaining buy-in from Democrats, and even some moderate Republicans, is seen as unlikely unless Trump is willing to compromise by allowing many unauthorized immigrants to gain legal status.

The House bills, by contrast, aim to enact tougher enforcement policies. One bill known as "Kate's Law" is named after Kate Steinle, the 32-year-old woman who was shot and killed in 2015 by an illegal immigrant who had been deported five times. The bill enhances penalties for convicted and deported criminals who reenter the United States illegally.

The other bill, called the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, would bar some federal grants from so-called "sanctuary cities" that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement authorities and allow victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants to sue those cities.

"This is about protecting law-abiding citizens and getting criminals off of our streets, plain and simple," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Tuesday.

But several House conservatives - already frustrated that Trump has not acted more quickly to undo Obama's executive immigration actions - lamented it took so long into Trump's presidency to get any immigration bills onto the House floor. And they quietly questioned why a more far-reaching immigration bill passed by the House Judiciary Committee in March was not being voted on.

Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., who beat the sitting House majority leader in a 2014 GOP primary after campaigning on immigration, said leaders were more interested in "a couple of the name-brand messaging pieces" than pushing for a more thorough bill.

"I won on those issues. Trump won on those issues," Brat said. "Hello - only in D.C. can you not hear outside of the bubble."

Democrats, meanwhile, cast the bills as a mean-spirited attempt to rally Republicans around legislation that would mainly harm undocumented but otherwise law-abiding immigrants at a time when other major parts of the GOP agenda are foundering.

"They're going to have a hard time figuring out the budget. They're going to have a hard time figuring out their tax cuts. They're going to have a hard time figuring out health care. The one thing they don't have a hard time figuring out is being mean and nasty to immigrants," said Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill.

The House bills have little chance of success in the Senate, where Republicans have only 52 seats and need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. A version of Kate's Law introduced last year by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, failed on a 55-42 vote.

Still, the White House made the legislation a centerpiece of its message on Wednesday. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., a hard-liner who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, joined Trump in the immigration meeting.

At the daily White House press briefing, Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and John Huber, the lead federal law enforcement official in Utah, took the lectern to update reporters on the administration's efforts to arrest and deport immigrants.

Kate's Law, Huber said, would send a message that apprehending and punishing immigrants who repeatedly return to the country after being deported is a priority.

"It also sends a message to the judicial branch, to the judges that the more that these people commit crimes in their communities, the more often they come back, the more serious the penalties will be," Huber said.

Homan added that the other bill, focusing on sanctuary cities, would ban any municipal restrictions on cooperating with federal immigration agents or any restrictions on allowing law enforcement officers to inquire about a person's immigration status.

"If you enter this country illegally and violate the laws of this nation, you should not be comfortable," Homan said.

Some Democrat-controlled state legislatures and city governments, including in California, have vigorously opposed Trump's efforts to impose penalties on sanctuary cities. Some have passed statutes forbidding the jurisdictions from using public funds to support some federal immigration enforcement efforts.

Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have denounced such efforts. But a federal judge in April temporarily blocked the administration's effort to withhold federal grants from such cities, ruling that only Congress had such authority over spending matters.

An official with the American Civil Liberties Union said the House bills are "riddled with constitutional violations that completely disregard the civil and human rights of immigrants."

The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.

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