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October 19, 2015

'Sanctuary Cities' legislation to reach Senate floor Tuesday

Sen. Toomey says 'sanctuary cities' undermine immigration laws

The U.S. Senate is expected to discuss legislation Tuesday that would penalize cities that prevent local law enforcement agencies from adhering to federal immigration orders. But the Republican-backed bill is unlikely to advance beyond debate.

The Stop Sanctuary Policies Act would punish so-called "sanctuary cities," like Philadelphia, by withholding certain federal funding. It also would enact stronger penalties on undocumented immigrants who unlawfully return to the United States after being convicted of an aggravated felony.

The bill follows similar legislation passed by the House of Representatives shortly after an undocumented immigrant and convicted felon allegedly murdered a woman in San Francisco.

But the Senate bill is not expected to attain the 60 votes needed to surmount a Democratic filibuster. President Barack Obama previously pledged to veto such a bill.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, urged its passage Saturday when he delivered the Weekly Republican Address, saying it is necessary to prevent cities from undermining immigration laws.

"The vast majority of legal immigrants are great additions to America and we should welcome them," Toomey said. "But when illegal immigrants do commit violent crimes in our country, they must be arrested and deported. That's the law."

Under the Secure Communities program, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests any undocumented immigrant arrested be detained, an attempt to apprehend dangerous criminals who enter the country illegally. But cities across the country have abandoned the practice, claiming the aggressive use of detainers prevents immigrants from reporting crimes to police.

Mayor Michael Nutter designated Philadelphia as a sanctuary city in April 2014, a move that drew the applause of immigration advocates. Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney also has vouched his support of sanctuary policies.

Philadelphia police cannot detain any undocumented immigrant who otherwise would be released pending trial — unless they have been convicted of a violent felony and the detainer is supported by judicial warrant.

The Senate bill would penalize "sanctuary cities" by withholding federal funding for community development block grants and Community Oriented Policing Services funding. It would also increase several penalties for undocumented immigrants who illegally return to the United States after being deported.

Congressional Republicans have rallied around the case of Kate Steinle, the San Francisco woman whose death in July pushed sanctuary policies into the limelight.

Steinle, 32, allegedly was killed by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant who had been dismissed by police after they picked him up on a decades-old drug charge. He has been deported multiple times and had a criminal record linked with drug offenses.

Toomey, a freshman senator who is up for re-election next year, cited Steinle throughout his Republican address.

"If federal officials had called about virtually any other crime – robbery, car theft, even violating a trademark – San Francisco police would have been allowed to cooperate," Toomey said. "But because the crime involved illegal immigration, their hands were tied. The local police were forced to release this repeat criminal from custody, and he then went on to murder Kate Steinle."

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, opposes the bill, saying it would "drastically cut" funding for law enforcement and community development at a time when cities, like Philadelphia, are strapped for cash.

"Instead of penalizing our cities and local police officers by taking away resources because of the federal government's failures, Congress should work in a bipartisan fashion to enact comprehensive immigration reform, which Democrats and Republicans supported in 2013," Casey said in a statement. "That comprehensive legislation would have doubled the number of border agents, helped build strategic fencing and would have brought millions of people out of the shadows so they can participate fully and contribute to our communities."

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, one of three Democratic candidates running to challenge Toomey, said Republicans are "demonizing and demagoguing immigrants" as they take aim at "sanctuary cities."

"Sen. Toomey and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum on that," said Fetterman, whose wife once was an undocumented immigrant from Brazil. "I'm always going to error on the side of compassion and error on the side of decency. I support sanctuary cities and I would as a U.S. senator."

Democratic candidate Joe Sestak does not support "sanctuary cities," but also opposes the punitive funding measures included in the Senate bill, campaign spokeswoman Danielle Lynch said in a statement. 

The Katie McGinty campaign released a statement calling for a senator "who will fight for real immigration reform" and avoid "divisive, partisan attacks" on immigrants.