Increasingly it seems Americans in different parts of the country have opened their morning newspaper or turned on the TV and learned about an act of violence carried out by someone who is living in this country illegally. Alarmingly, many of these individuals have had previous contact with local law enforcement officials. Such is the case in Newark, New Jersey, where recently three innocent young people were tragically murdered. In the aftermath of this tragedy, we learned that one of the suspects — an illegal immigrant — was previously arrested on multiple occasions and, rather than being deported, was set free only to victimize again.
The situation in Newark didn’t happen in a vacuum. It isn’t new, nor is it relegated to just this one community. An alarming number of cities and towns throughout this nation have similar sanctuary policies on the books — including both Minneapolis and St. Paul in my home state of Minnesota. In these cities, local law enforcement officials are barred from so much as inquiring about a suspect’s immigration status and passing along their concerns to federal authorities for follow up action. The rationale for this practice is as antiquated as the practice itself. Yes, it is important to maintain good relations between immigrant communities and local law enforcement, but we must not hide behind that as an excuse for letting lawbreakers off the hook. In a post 9/11 world, the evidence has shown the consequences of sanctuary city policies can reach beyond just one community. Take for example Mohammed Atta, leader of the 9/11 hijackers. In 2001, he was stopped and ticketed for driving without a license in Florida. His visa was expired and yet he was simply allowed to continue on his way.
So why are cities allowed to place a gag order on their law enforcement officers? It’s simple: by exploiting a loophole in Sec. 642 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. While the law requires cooperation with federal officials on immigration matters, sanctuary cities get around it by employing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy, with sometimes devastating consequences.
This is not to suggest all aliens are violent criminals, or that all violent criminals are illegal aliens. I simply think we ought to recognize that there are some violent crimes that could have been prevented if only this gag order had not been placed on local law enforcement.
I have been working in the Senate to end the practice of sanctuary cities. During the debate of the immigration bill, I offered an amendment to require cities to comply with the current law. Sadly, my legislation was defeated by a razor thin margin largely along party lines. While my colleagues on the other side of the aisle were treating this as a symbolic vote, I assure you this issue is very real for people like the victims of the Newark tragedy.
My amendment represented a very reasonable approach. It did not seek to turn local law enforcement into immigration agents. It would not require local law enforcement officers to conduct immigration raids, or even make determinations about a person’s immigration status. It would simply lift the gag order and restore to law enforcement officers the ability to pursue a person’s immigration status as part of their daily work. That would in turn allow them to report their suspicions to the appropriate federal authorities though already-established channels. My amendment clarified that a person may not be barred from receiving medical or education services due to their immigration status. Finally, nothing in my amendment would have undone the protections contained in the Violence Against Women Act for illegal immigrant women and children who are victims of domestic violence.
The Newark case and others like it demonstrate that it is time to get serious about immigration reform. It begins with taking away the impunity for immigration violations on every level. Consider the fact that 40 percent of the current illegal population entered the U.S. legally, but overstayed their visas. This means that even if we had the best border security in the world, we would still have millions of illegal immigrants in this country. My legislation would have helped address this concern. If the government is ever to earn the trust of the American people when it comes to enforcing our immigration laws, we must begin by lifting this gag order on our cops.
Opening the lines of communication between local and federal law enforcement officials is essential to protecting the security and safety of our citizens. Sanctuary cities like Newark, Minneapolis and others hinder that communication and prevent us from taking action against criminals before they act. In Minnesota, police officers have told me they feel their jobs could be threatened if they asked about immigration status in routine investigations. Simply put, our officers should not be handcuffed in their ability to protect the public.
The informational wall created by the sanctuary city loophole defies logic and, in this day and age, is harmful to our national security. We must give this tool back to our local law enforcement. And even though the debate in Washington over immigration reform has subsided for now, I will continue working with my colleagues to end the practice of sanctuary cities.