'Sanctuary cities' are not the problem

Did sanctuary city policy lead to San Francisco murder?
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Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: Candidates have slammed 'sanctuary cities' after immigrant in San Francisco allegedly shot woman dead
  • He says they want to sound tough, but their solution is clueless. Cities don't want to pay for enforcement that's U.S. responsibility

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The leading Republican candidates for president, led by Donald Trump, are off and running with a round of liberal-bashing rhetoric, denouncing left-leaning bastions San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. That is because these places are among the 200-odd, so-called "sanctuary cities" that generally limit the use of local cops and jails when it comes to the herculean task of finding and/or detaining America's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Errol Louis
This is a case where the politicians will likely pounce on simple, tough-sounding solutions. But it is talk that will ensure little or no progress on an issue that has bedeviled America for decades.
Trump has done more than anyone to put the issue on the national agenda, directly citing "our unsafe border" for the sickening, horrific murder in San Francisco of 32-year-old Kate Steinle.
    Accused in her slaying is Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who had been convicted of felonies seven times and deported five times, most recently in 2009.
    Federal immigration authorities say they might have deported the suspected killer yet again but say that the San Francisco Sheriff's Department failed to tell them he was being released. In reality, better bureaucratic decisions would have prevented Lopez-Sanchez from ever being in a San Francisco jail; he'd been serving time in federal prison, and a pending removal order by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was in effect.
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    But instead of handing him over to ICE, the Federal Bureau of Prisons transferred him to San Francisco to face prosecution for a 20-year-old marijuana possession charge.
    When local authorities opted not to prosecute -- no surprise, given how old the charge was -- they simply released Lopez-Sanchez in April. He claims to have found a weapon, which discharged randomly and killed Steinle.
    That chain of blunders is almost inevitable, given the fundamentally different and conflicting goals of federal and local agencies.
    The Supreme Court made clear in a 2012 case, Arizona v. United States, that the federal government has sole authority to enforce border and immigration laws. According to the high court, local law enforcement agencies can't start investigating and arresting people on suspicion that they may in the U.S. illegally.
    That fits neatly with so-called sanctuary city policies: local authorities in these immigrant-dense places focus on routine law-enforcement matters -- burglaries, muggings, traffic violations and the like -- without taking the additional step of tracing the immigration status of the vast tide of suspects, victims and witnesses they come across.
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    Staying out of the border-enforcement business, say many local officials, is necessary so that law-abiding immigrants don't flee or shun local police for fear of being caught and deported.
    In the words of the American Immigration Council, "most state and local police do not want to be put in the position of identifying noncriminal immigrants for deportation because they believe doing so would make it more difficult for them to earn the trust of immigrant residents and protect the entire community from criminals."
    If everything worked the way it's supposed to, local authorities would enforce traffic laws and minor crimes, and federal officials would independently chase down and deport those who violate immigration laws, especially drug dealers, violent criminals and gang members.
    But that didn't happen in the Steinle case, and an innocent woman was killed, allegedly by a felon who'd repeatedly violated immigration and other laws. A political blame game has ensued.
    "We ought to eliminate sanctuary cities," ex-Gov. Jeb Bush told a group in New Hampshire, arguing that the federal government "shouldn't provide law enforcement monies for cities like San Francisco until they change their policies."
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    "No sanctuary cities," said candidate Dr. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, on his own swing through New Hampshire, calling the idea "ridiculous."
    If only things were that simple.
    Politicians often talk as if determining a person's immigration status were a simple task that local cops could perform. It isn't.
    Many noncitizens claim they a right to be here -- a parent or spouse who is a citizen, or a claim they face political persecution in their home country. There are a lot of people waiting for their day in court; an estimated 375,000 cases are being handled by the nation's overburdened immigration judges. There's a five-year waiting list to get to immigration court.
    Facing such a slow-moving process, local governments in cities with large immigrant populations must decide whether they want to incur the administrative expense of getting into the border-enforcement business -- something the Supreme Court has specifically barred them from doing anyway.
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    The result is the current political standoff: On one side are sanctuary cities trying to manage services to immigrant populations without straying into forbidden enforcement areas. On the other side are critics who point to an ever-growing list of horrific crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, claiming that robust deportation might have prevented bloodshed.
    And right in the middle stand the presidential candidates, eager to score political points by boiling a tough question down to a few sound bites.
    At least one candidate, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, says Republicans risk alienating Latino voters if they turn to harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric. "We've gone from 44% to 27% among Hispanic voters, for a reason," Graham told CNN. "You'll never convince me that it hasn't been about the way that we've handled this issue."
    Trump, on the other hand, is bashing Sen. Marco Rubio as "weak" on immigration, some congressional Republicans are vowing to act on the idea of cutting federal funding to sanctuary cities, and the issue promises to figure prominently in the upcoming August 6 Republican presidential debate.
    The sound bites and debate talking points will all distract from the core, politically unpalatable truth:
    Without serious and comprehensive reform -- including a reasonable path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people currently in the United States -- we will continue to see local governments resort to sanctuary-city policies and other workarounds as a flawed but necessary substitute for a national will to fix our broken immigration system.