‘A San Francisco right here in Iowa’: Iowa House committee approves bill to punish Iowa City over immigration

Photo by Martin aka Maha

A bill that would strip so-called “sanctuary cities” of state funds passed the Iowa House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, and will now receive a floor vote in the Iowa House of Representatives.

“Republican leaders have said the legislation is a direct response to a policy adopted in Iowa City that says the city will not commit local resources to enforcing federal immigration law,” Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register reported.

Rep. Steve Holt, the bill manager for SF 481, said 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.”

There is no legal definition of “sanctuary city,” and Iowa City officials have rejected the term, but three days before Donald Trump was sworn in as president in Jan. 2017, the Iowa City Council 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.

“We intend to keep (Iowa City) a safe and welcoming place for all its residents and visitors,” Mayor Jim Throgmorton said when the resolution was passed. “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 been the responsibility of federal agencies, not state and local officials.

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

The Legislative Service Agency (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, according to the LSA.

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.

A total of 76 groups, from religious organizations to cities including Iowa City to the Iowa Police Chief Association, have registered in opposition to the bill. Only one group has registered in support of the bill — the Iowa Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which was described as a “nativist extremist” group in a 2015 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Tuesday’s hearing on SF 481 took place under unusual circumstances.

Committee Chair Rep. Clel Baulder, who is retiring after this term, tried to bar the public from attending the hearing. Baulder, a Republican from Greenfield, told James Lynch of The Gazette that he wanted to avoid a repeat of a hearing on SF 481 last year, during which members of the public voiced their objections to the bill.

Only half a dozen members of the public were allowed into the hearing room at the state capitol, which seats 100, because Baulder reserved almost all the seats in the room for clerks who work for House Republicans. Clerks typically don’t attend such hearings. People unable to find seat had to wait outside the room during the hearing.

“I’ve never seen that before,” Mitch Henry of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa told Lynch.

After the committee took a break, it reconvened in a larger room for the vote on the bill, and there were no reserved seats in the new room.

The bill passed 11-10. Every Democrat on the committee voted against it, as did one Republican, Rep. Gary Worthan of Storm Lake.

If the House approves it, the bill go to the state Senate. The Senate passed SF 481 during the previous session, but must vote on it again for it to advance to the governor’s desk. 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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