Bill aimed at punishing Iowa City over immigration passes Iowa House

The Iowa State Capitol. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

Update: On Wednesday evening, the state Senate approved the bill, by a vote of 28 to 18. It was a party line vote, with all Senate Republicans voting for the bill, and all Democrats and the Senate’s one independent opposing it.

A bill that would strip so-called “sanctuary cities” of state funds was approved by the Iowa House of Representatives on Tuesday, even though several Democrats speaking in opposition to the bill pointed out that no city in Iowa meets the U.S. Justice Department’s definition of a sanctuary city.

Republican leaders in both chambers have made it clear that this bill is aimed at Iowa City, which in January 2017 passed a resolution directing the city’s police department not to assist federal immigration officers in the performance of their duties, except in cases involving public safety. At the time, Mayor Jim Throgmorton said the resolution was needed to “keep [Iowa City] a safe and welcoming place for all its residents and visitors, If undocumented residents fear they will be deported simply for being undocumented, they will avoid reporting to the police crimes they witness or have committed against them.”

Throgmorton’s position is backed by most law enforcement officials in Iowa. No organization representing state or municipal law enforcement supports SF 481, the sanctuary cities bill, and the Iowa Police Chief Association opposes it, as does the Iowa attorney general and the Iowa County Attorneys Association.

Rep. Steve Holt, the bill manager for SF 481, said last month the bill was needed because Iowa City is “in defiance of the rule of law.” The Dennison Republican warned there is a “potential for a San Francisco right here in Iowa.”

Iowa City officials have rejected the designation of sanctuary city. There is no legal definition of the term, and in a federal court filing in May 2017, the Justice Department said it only applied the term to cities that refused to comply with an existing federal law requiring municipalities to share information about an immigrant’s citizenship or legal status. According to the filing, local law enforcement agencies are not required to comply with requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrant who would otherwise be set free.

SF 481 would require local law enforcement agencies to continue to detain any person already in custody, if it receives a request to do so from federal immigration officials, even if that person is not being charged with a crime. Municipalities would also be prohibited from adopting policies that discourage local police from engaging in immigration enforcement. For example, police departments would no longer be able to have a policy of not asking people about their immigration status.

Enforcement of immigration law has traditionally be the responsibility of federal agencies, not state and local officials. Representatives from local law enforcement agencies in Iowa have pointed out that city police and sheriff’s agencies don’t have the financial resources or personnel available to enforce federal laws.

Republican supporters of the bill didn’t use any colorful language about San Francisco during the debate on Tuesday, and instead mostly stuck to claiming the bill was about maintaining the rule of law. But Rep. Skyler Wheeler, a freshmen Republican from Orange City, took it a little further than his colleagues did.

“The role of the government according to the Bible very simply is to punish evil and reward good,” Wheeler, who told Little Village in January that “my worldview begins with the Bible and taking it in its literal form,” said. He continued, “This bill is very consistent with Romans 13.”

Chapter 13 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans begins, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (New International Version translation). Wheeler’s speech is possibly the first time an Iowa lawmaker has claimed it is God’s will that people follow the policies of the Trump administration.

SF 481 allows any member of the public to file a complaint with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office or a county attorney’s office, if that person believes a municipality is not fully enforcing federal immigration law.

According to the Legislative Services Agency (LSA),

After an investigation, if the complaint has been determined to be valid, the local entity (along with any entity under that jurisdiction) would be denied State funds for the subsequent fiscal year and indefinitely until eligibility to receive State funds has been reinstated. However, this denial would not apply to any State funds meant for the purchase of wearable body protective gear used for law enforcement.

A state district court judge would have to issue a finding that a municipality was fully in compliance with the provisions of SF 481 before state funding could be restored.

The LSA estimates it would cost the attorney general’s office between $12,000 to $24,000 annually to enforce SF 481. County jails would see a cost of approximately $50 a day for each additional person detained as a result of the bill. And the impact on cities determined to be in violation of the bill would be severe.

The denial of State funding based upon a valid finding of a violation… would potentially impact a wide range of State funding, which includes: Road Use Tax Fund allocations, grants, and reimbursements; State property tax replacements, tuition replacement, flood mitigation projects, community college funding, grants made by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and many other areas.

Only one Democrat, Rep. Charlie McConkey of Council Bluffs, voted in favor of the bill. Five Republicans representatives — Michael Bergan of Dorchester, Dave Heaton of Mount Pleasant, Megan Jones of Sioux Rapids, Kevin Koester of Ankeny and Gary Worthan of Buena Vista — broke with their caucus to vote against the bill.

SF 481 now goes back to the state Senate for final legislative approval. The Senate passed the bill during the previous session, but must vote on it again to advance it to the governor’s desk. The Republican majority in the Senate is expected to approve it.

According to the Associated Press, Gov. Kim Reynolds “has indicated support” for the bill.

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