National tragedies have long propelled political change. Often a terrible event will ignite a fervent desire in political leaders to take action on an issue that has been neglected or overlooked. However, it is in these times of passion and emotion that some of the worst mistakes are made.
Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, our nation felt justified in stripping thousands of Japanese-Americans of their land and forcing them into internment camps. After the horrible terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, our government implemented laws such as the Patriot Act that infringed on Americans’ constitutional rights.
On July 1, 2015, 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed on Pier 14 in San Francisco, while walking arm-in-arm with her father. The man who reportedly shot her, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, was an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times and been convicted of several drug-related offenses in the past. This random and senseless act is fueling the urge on the part of Congress to do something.
On July 23, 2015, the House passed H.R. 3009 to punish local jurisdictions – known as “sanctuary cities” that don’t comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) indefinite detainer requests for non-violent criminals. If enacted these provisions will have devastating fiscal and humanitarian consequences for these municipalities. In addition to other penalties, non-compliant cities would be ineligible to get reimbursed for the cost of detaining immigrants accused of or convicted of crimes. In California, where we are just emerging from a severe recession and still have unemployment levels above the national average, such a federal mandate would prove devastating to our recovering economy.
A second bill, H.R. 3011, currently being considered in the House and expected to pass at this writing, will unilaterally sentence any undocumented immigrants to five years in prison for unlawfully re-entering the United States. Congress is considering this bill despite the fact that the U.S. is already a world leader in the number of people it incarcerates, with states like California having to release inmates due to overpopulation within its prisons.
According to a study of 40 state’s prison systems by the Vera Institute of Justice, the average costs for a single inmate is $31,286 per year, with this fluctuating by jurisdiction, hitting a high of $167,731 per inmate in places like New York City. Multiply this cost by the tens of thousands of people that may be subject to five-year prison sentences throughout the country and it’s clear how immense the financial burden would be on federal, state and local budgets.
These costs do not factor in the economic impact imprisoning these individuals would have on the businesses and communities that rely on their labor. According to the United States Department of Labor over half of the country’s farm workers are undocumented immigrants. This bill directly threatens California’s $21 billion agricultural industry, which is already under tremendous stress due to an unprecedented drought.
Astonishingly, neither of these bills, even if enacted into law, would deter any criminal from engaging in a violent crime. Instead they would deter the hard-working and benign immigrants that our country heavily relies on. At a minimum, such ill-conceived demagoguery by Congress is divisive and counterproductive.
Congress instead should direct its energy and focus on a real solution through a thorough and comprehensive reform of our immigration laws so that criminals like Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez don’t have the ability to roam around our communities with impunity. States do not need additional unfunded mandates from the federal government when it’s Congress who has failed to act as it should and give our country an immigration system that fits this century and the nation’s needs.
Written by Ally Bolour, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee