Senators say Trump can immediately issue executive orders to curb sanctuary cities

File photo shows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents engaged in an immigration raid. (Photo courtesy of Department of Homeland Security)

In the immediate aftermath of the election, mayors from some of America's largest cities told Donald Trump that they would not comply with any of his planned efforts to shut down their so-called sanctuary cities and they would not enforce federal immigration law.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said his city is “not going to sacrifice a half million people who live among us" by turning them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Chicago Mayor and former Barack Obama chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel reassured illegal immigrants that despite their post-election anxieties “you are safe in Chicago.

The sentiment was echoed by mayors and local officials in other major sanctuary cities across the country including Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Santa Fe, N.M., Austin, Tex., Denver, Col. and others.

This defiance was prompted by the high likelihood that Donald Trump will make good on his campaign promise to end sanctuary cities, cut federal law enforcement funding to cities that do not cooperate with ICE, and triple the number of immigration enforcement agents.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, there are approximately 300 jurisdictions that have sanctuary policies, a number that has increased under the Obama administration. Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center, classifies a sanctuary as any jurisdiction that has a policy, law, or ordinance that actively obstructs immigration enforcement or shields illegal aliens from detection.

According to Vaughan, aside from violations of federal law, the practical effect of the sanctuary policies "is a public safety matter."

Fixing the U.S. immigration system has topped Trump's agenda since the beginning of his campaign, causing jitters in communities where illegal immigrants are shielded from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some of his major immigration reforms will require him working with Congress to change the law, but according to some senators, there are actions Trump can take unilaterally to immediately address the issue of sanctuary cities.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) introduced legislation in June that would withhold certain federal grants and law enforcement funds for sanctuary cities that provide cover for criminal illegal aliens. On Thursday, he told Sinclair Broadcast Group that he intends to reintroduce the bill now that Trump has been elected president.

While waiting for a bill from Congress to full address the problem, Trump can get the ball rolling from the Oval Office, Toomey explained.

"I would encourage the president to go ahead and do what he can do," the senator said. "There are executive orders that he could implement that are fully constitutional, fully within his authority, that I think would have the effect of curbing sanctuary cities."

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a strong supporter of Toomey's bill to end sanctuary cities, also emphasized that Donald Trump can act unilaterally.

"If he can do something executive-wise, I would urge him to do it," said Grassley.

The Iowa senator repeated his support for withholding federal law enforcement grants from sanctuary cities, saying that when it comes to threatening funds, "you are using levers that are very important to big cities."

Now that Trump has become president, Grassley believes there will be enough support in the new Senate to pass a bill to end sanctuary cities, though Democrats may move to block it, the way they did earlier this year.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) a one-time opponent of Donald Trump, commented that his position on sanctuary cities remains the same. "If cities aren't following federal law, they should not be receiving federal law enforcement funding."

The danger of sanctuary cities has been underscored on numerous occasions. Just last year, 32 year-old Kathryn Steinle was fatally shot and killed in San Francisco by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an illegal immigrant who had been convicted of seven felonies and deported five times. The high-profile incident in one of America's largest sanctuary cities touched off heated debate on immigration issues.

Donald Trump positioned himself at the center of that debate, reaching out to survivors of crimes that may have been prevented if immigration laws were enforced. At the Republican National Convention in July, Trump invited three parents, Mary Ann Mendoza, Sabine Durden, and Jamiel Shaw, Sr., to speak on the convention floor about the loss of their children to violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants.

In Mendoza's case, her son, Sgt. Brandon Mendoza, a police officer in Colorado, was killed in a head-on collision by a driver who was in the country illegally.

Durden son Dominic, a 9-11 dispatcher in Moreno Valley, Cal., was killed by a speeding car in 2012. The driver was an undocumented immigrant from Guatamala who had been convicted in the past for felony grand theft auto and two counts of drunk driving.

Jamiel Shaw's 17 year-old son Jamiel, Jr. was shot and killed in Los Angeles in 2008 by a Mexican gang member who had illegally crossed the border. Pedro Espinoza, the immigrant, had been released by local authorities prior to the murder despite being brought up on three gun charges and assault and battery on a police officer. He was charged and sentenced to death in 2012.

Trump came under heavy attack for his early campaign comments in June and July 2015 when he referred to Mexicans as "rapists" who are bringing "drugs and crime" into the United States. Defending those comments, he later described the problem of illegal immigration in stark terms saying, "You have people come in and I'm not just saying Mexicans, I'm talking about people that are from all over, that are killers and rapists and they're coming to this country."

"ICE's highest priority is and always has been finding those deportable aliens or non-citizens who are causing problems in communities," Vaughan explained. The easiest way for ICE to access those people is when they have already been arrested for a state or local crime. But sanctuary cities produce a scenario that poses the greatest challenge for immigration enforcement.

In the case of individuals who commit serious crimes, it is ideal to keep them from being released by a local judge, Vaughan said, "so that the law can actually be enforced."

Under the Obama administration, the number of sanctuary jurisdictions has increased along with the issues of enforcement.

In an effort to solve one problem, the Obama administration stumbled into another. During Obama's first term, he oversaw the nationwide expansion of a biometric information sharing program called Secure Communities. The program made it mandatory for the FBI to share its criminal fingerprint database with ICE, allowing ICE to search the databases for an individual’s criminal and immigration history.

The program appeared to be a success, leading ICE to remove more than 142,000 criminal illegals in 2011. But the information sharing program, designed to take serious criminals off the streets, was highly controversial in some quarters.

A number of state and local officials mounted strong opposition to the program because they saw it fueling distrust between local communities and law enforcement. They also saw the possibility that the program could deter illegal immigrants from reporting crimes.

The mandatory implementation of Secure Communities was a tipping point, Vaughan said. "That is when [the sanctuary cities] started blocking ICE access to jails, saying, 'We're not going to hold people for you, we're going to release people instead."

The Obama administration did not act to overcome the resistance of local governments, Vaughan added. "They thought it was okay to let state and local governments say no to immigration enforcement," Vaughan said.

In response to the outcry against Secure Communities, the Department of Homeland Security changed course and implemented a voluntary program to encourage sanctuary communities to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

The 2015 Priority Engagement Program was initiated after local officials rejected more than 17,000 ICE notices to take illegals into custody over a 19 month period. An official with ICE explained that since the enforcement program took effect, 17 of the 25 jurisdictions who most frequently declined ICE custody requests are now participating in federal immigration enforcement efforts.

The Constitution gives the federal government authority to create laws concerning immigration and naturalization, and a number of federal laws forbid a local jurisdiction from restricting the exchange of information with ICE, and also forbid shielding illegal aliens from detection.

Sen. Grassley commented that while the law is fairly clear, "they can do whatever they can get away with, and have gotten away with."

Under the incoming Trump administration, those states, counties, and cities that refused to work with federal immigration enforcement are not likely to see the kind of leniency they did in recent years, according to Vaughan. "During the Trump administration, there is going to be a different approach. They're not going to let state and local jurisdictions dictate to the federal government when the immigration laws can be enforced."

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