Two bills to be debated in the United States Senate on July 6, 2016 would make the US immigration system even more dysfunctional and undermine state and local law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Senate is expected to debate a bill sponsored by Senator Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania that would financially penalize local jurisdictions that choose not to entangle local policing with federal immigration enforcement efforts. The Senate is also expected to debate a bill sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas that would establish harsher sentences for the crime of “illegal reentry.”
“Under the rubric of safety, two Senators are proposing legislation that could make US communities less safe,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “One bill would overstretch already overcrowded federal prisons, the other would make many victims of crime less likely to call 911 – quite the one-two punch.”
The Toomey bill (S.3100 – the “Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act”) attempts to pressure local jurisdictions into assisting with federal immigration enforcement. The bill penalizes “sanctuary jurisdictions” by denying them federal funds. Sanctuary jurisdictions, as defined by the bill, are any state or local government with policies in place that restrict officials in those governments from collaborating with federal immigration enforcement efforts in certain circumstances.
The bill is an attempt to stop jurisdictions from adopting laws – sometimes referred to as TRUST Acts – that set certain limits on officials’ ability to collaborate with immigration enforcement efforts. For example, several state and local governments have laws and policies in place to comply with a federal request to hold a person for immigration enforcement purposes only if that person has been charged with or convicted of a serious crime.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented the harm to public safety that can result when immigrants avoid contact with law enforcement because they fear local police are acting as agents of the federal government to enforce immigration laws. Migrant workers can end up facing an increased risk of sexual assault, and other communities of immigrants are afraid to report crimes.
“Turning beat cops into immigration agents only helps to make immigrants afraid of the police,” Ginatta said. “And when communities are scared of police, public safety suffers.”
The Cruz bill (S.2193 – the “Stop Illegal Reentry Act”) increases penalties for illegal reentry convictions. Currently, if a person without a serious criminal history is convicted of reentering the United States after being denied entry or after being deported, the maximum sentence is two years. The Cruz bill would increase that maximum to five years. For people who had committed certain felonies, the Cruz bill would set a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. The five-year mandatory minimum sentence would also apply to people with two prior illegal reentry convictions.
These increased penalties would apply to all categories of immigrants, including people seeking to rejoin family members in the US. Human Rights Watch has documented how these categories of migrants are often undeterred by harsh penalties. Immigration offenses are the most prosecuted federal crimes in the United States.
Increasing penalties for illegal reentry could have profound effects for families, including thousands of US citizen children separated from non-citizen parents, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has estimated that in 2011 and 2012, 15 percent of those apprehended at the border – more than 101,900 people – were parents of a US citizen child. The US Sentencing Commission found that almost 50 percent of people convicted of reentry have children living in the US.
“Mandatory minimum sentences for illegal reentry would deprive judges of the ability to find that many people who reenter should not be in prison at all,” Ginatta said. “These proposals are counterproductive and would make a deeply dysfunctional US immigration system even more so.”