Iowa advances immigration bill banning ‘sanctuary cities’

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa is set to become the latest Republican-led state to target so-called sanctuary cities by withholding money from local governments that don’t comply with federal immigration laws, even though the plan could lead to court challenges.

A bill outlining an expansive immigration enforcement plan is expected to receive final legislative approval this week. It comes as President Donald Trump ramps up calls for more stringent immigration enforcement.

Critics say it would essentially allow racial profiling, but Republican lawmakers frame the measure as a public safety policy. Republican Rep. Steven Holt of Denison, a western Iowa community with a growing Latino population, said the bill focuses on immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission who are suspected of crimes.

“This legislation is about the rule of law, and the safety of all people, citizens and immigrants alike,” Holt said shortly before the Iowa House approved the bill Tuesday on a 55-45 vote, with one Democrat voting for it and five Republicans against it.

The legislation was being debated in the Republican-controlled Senate late Wednesday. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has indicated she would sign the measure, highlighting it in a fundraising email for her gubernatorial campaign.

Immigration activist Berenice Nava said she believes immigrants will be racially profiled even if the bill specifically prohibits it. She noted the bill would allow authorities to question people about their immigration status if they’re “under lawful detention or under arrest.”

“I feel very threatened,” the 26-year-old Des Moines resident said before she and other activists gathered in the House gallery Tuesday waving American and Iowa flags. “I’m not light skin. I don’t have blonde hair. My family, my friends, they’re brown skin. So I fear for everyone.”

The primary focus of the legislation is on “sanctuary cities,” a catch-all label for jurisdictions that limit local involvement in federal immigration enforcement. Trump’s administration has threatened to deny federal grant money to sanctuary cities, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ office recently sued California over the state’s law barring police in many cases from turning suspects over to federal agents for deportation.

Iowa has no sanctuary cities, though some communities and schools have varying guidelines on how to handle immigration related issues. School districts in Des Moines and Iowa City, for example, have adopted policies directing immigration enforcement requests to be funneled to their superintendents’ offices.

Under the Iowa legislation, a local entity — such as a city and county government — would lose state funding if they adopted policies that prohibit or discourage the enforcement of immigration laws.

Law enforcement agencies would have to comply with requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold a jailed person 48 hours after they would otherwise be detained. Immigration attorneys say that provision could open the state to litigation if an individual is held beyond the time he or she would otherwise be released.

The bill would also block municipalities from preventing Iowa jails from being used as part of federal agents’ work.

Law enforcement officials have testified against the bill, saying they already follow immigration laws. Only one organization — the Iowa Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group against illegal immigration — is registered in support.

There were an estimated 40,000 immigrants living illegally in Iowa in 2014, the most recent data available, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

The Iowa legislation has raised questions about its impact to schools. A nonpartisan analysis by the Legislative Services Agency concluded that it was unclear whether schools fell under the legislation’s definition of a public entity. That could open the door for school immigration enforcement policies to be challenged.

Sen. Julian Garrett, a Republican from Indianola, dismissed that assessment.

“I wrote the bill. It has nothing to do with schools,” he said during Wednesday floor debate.

More than 30 states considered bills last year similar to Iowa’s proposal, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while 15 states and the District of Columbia sought legislation to support sanctuary cities.

Only a handful of states have actually enacted such bans in recent years, with a range of enforcement provisions. The most high-profile was a Texas law passed last year that threatened jail time for officials who don’t follow federal immigration directives. A federal appeals court upheld the law last month amid a lawsuit.

Fabiola Schirrmeister, a 32-year-old from Des Moines, brought her camera to the state Capitol on Tuesday to record some of the bill’s votes while translating the activity in Spanish. She said immigrants “are under attack.”

“This is a persecution against immigrants in general,” she said.