Bill to punish cities for not fully enforcing federal immigration laws advances in state legislature

The march makes its way down the sidewalk on Washington Street. Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

A bill that would punish cities accused of not fully enforcing federal immigration laws passed a subcommittee in the Iowa House of Representatives on a party line vote Tuesday morning. Both Republican members of the subcommittee voted to send the bill, SF 481, to the House Public Safety Committee for consideration.

SF 481 was already approved by the state Senate during the previous session, so it only needs to the pass the House in order to reach the governor’s desk.

Supporters of the bill say it is aimed at forcing so-called “sanctuary cities” to comply with federal law, even though there are no sanctuary cities in Iowa. Some cities in the state, such as Iowa City, have decided not to have their police departments assist federal immigration officers in the performance of their duties, except in cases involving public safety.

“We intend to keep (Iowa City) a safe and welcoming place for all its residents and visitors,” Mayor Jim Throgmorton said when the Iowa City Council adopted its position on immigration enforcement in January 2017. “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.”

Most Iowa law enforcement officials have taken a similar position, and have also pointed out that local police and sheriff’s agencies don’t have the financial resources or personnel available to enforce federal laws. Enforcement of immigration law has traditionally be the responsibility of federal agencies, not state and local officials.

Both the Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association and the Iowa Police Chief Association oppose the bill, as does the Iowa attorney general and the Iowa County Attorneys Association.

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.

The bill 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.

Defenders of the bill claim it is simply about making sure all laws are being followed.

“The vast majority of local law enforcement folks comply with the requests, they cooperate with the federal authorities, but there are a few that don’t and unfortunately there are a few in Iowa don’t,” Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, the bill’s author, said when SF 481 passed the state Senate in April. “This bill is what I am proposing to deal with that problem.”

Iowa City has officially registered its opposition to the bill. So have the Iowa State Association of County Supervisors, the Iowa League of Cities and the Iowa State Association of Counties.

The only group to register with the state legislature as being in favor of the bill is the Iowa Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which was described as a “nativist extremist” group in a 2015 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

SF 481 passed out of the subcommittee on a vote of 2 to 1. According to the Associated Press, Gov. Reynolds “has indicted support” for the bill.

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