Families urge action on undocumented felons

Families urge action on undocumented felons

The father of a young San Francisco woman allegedly killed by an illegal immigrant felon is calling on Congress to take swift action to keep such characters “off our streets for good.”

In an emotional hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Jim Steinle, the father of Kathryn Steinle, told the lawmakers his daughter was the victim of a negligent bureaucracy that allowed the suspect — an undocumented Mexican national with a long criminal record — to slip through the cracks at the public’s peril.

“Due to unjointed laws and basic incompetence of the government, the U.S. has suffered a self-inflicted wound in the murder of our daughter by the hand of a person that should have never been on the streets in this country,” Steinle said.

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“Our family realizes the complexities of immigration laws; however, we feel strongly that some legislation should be discussed, enacted and/or changed to take these undocumented immigrant felons off our streets for good.”

Steinle was joined by relatives of other people killed by immigrants who were in the country illegally. The victims’ families echoed Steinle’s message that Congress needs to do more to detain or deport illegal immigrant criminals.

“This government continues to fail, or even recognize that we have an issue. Americans are dying daily at the hands of criminals that we don’t even know are here,” said Laura Wilkerson, the mother of Josh Wilkerson, an 18-year-old Texan killed by an illegal immigrant in 2010. “Your silence speaks volumes. You are either for Americans, or you are not.”

The Steinle tragedy has quickly fueled the already heated immigration reform debate on Capitol Hill, and Republicans wasted no time using Tuesday’s hearing to attack President Obama for what they say is his failure to enforce existing laws. Some accused the administration of essentially abetting the crimes committed by undocumented immigrant felons who are released rather than held or deported.

“If this administration had spent one-tenth of the effort on enforcement and protecting people from crime and punishing people who are criminals — who violated our immigration laws — rather than on amnesty, we’d be a lot safer today,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.). “Many of the people who have been injured, robbed or killed by illegal aliens would be alive today. That’s just a fact, and everybody knows it.”

The emotional airing crescendoed into confrontation when a member of the audience began yelling at an immigrant rights advocate who also addressed the panel.

Don Rosenberg, whose son was killed in 2010 by an unlicensed driver living in the United States under temporary protective status, said he was infuriated that the Rev. Gabriel Salguero had testified in defense of illegal immigrants.

“He’s trying to make the illegal aliens the victims, when they’re the ones that are the criminals,” Rosenberg said amid his arrest by Capitol Police.  

Kathryn Steinle, 32, was killed earlier this month while walking with her father on a pier in San Francisco’s popular waterfront area. The suspect in the shooting, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, is a seven-time felon who had been deported on five previous occasions.

Although Lopez-Sanchez was a top deportation priority of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Federal Bureau of Prisons released him in March to the San Francisco Police Department to face outstanding drug charges. Weeks later, the police department had dropped the charges and, defying a request from ICE, released him without informing federal officials.

The tragedy has provoked a national discussion about “sanctuary cities,” which have adopted laws discouraging local law enforcers from cooperating with federal immigration agencies — and prompted a series of Republican bills designed to mandate that cooperation.

Supporters of the sanctuary laws, including many Democrats, say they help fight crime by encouraging communication between police and members of the community who might otherwise remain silent for fear of being deported.

“If victims and witnesses of crime do not feel safe to step forward, the police cannot do their jobs and we are all less safe,” Grace Huang, a Seattle-based advocate for domestic abuse victims, told senators Tuesday. “As a victim advocate, I am deeply concerned that mandating local police cooperation with immigration enforcement will strengthen the hand of violent perpetrators, helping them silence their victims and those who witness their crimes.”

Critics of the sanctuary laws, including many Republicans, say they create safe havens that encourage illegal immigration, visa overstays and other criminal behavior.

“There is no good rationale for noncooperation between the feds and state and local law enforcement,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Public safety is needlessly and recklessly put at risk when state and local officials provide sanctuary to lawbreaking immigrants just to make a political point.”

The Steinle tragedy has launched a flurry of legislative responses from Congress, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pushing legislation aimed at discouraging sanctuary laws by withholding federal law enforcement grants to jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal requests
to hold or transfer criminals.

Grassley introduced legislation along those lines on Tuesday; Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), another member of the Judiciary panel, said she’s drafting a comparable bill, and House Republicans have scheduled a vote this week on a similar proposal.

The fate of the legislation remains unclear.

The conservative anti-immigration group NumbersUSA has panned the House proposal as too soft, leaving some to question if GOP leaders have enough support in their right-leaning conference to pass the measure. 

And many Democrats warn that such legislation could backfire.

“In our understandable drive to act in response to these senseless killings, we must resist the urge to hastily adopt legislation that has the unintended consequence of making us less safe,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Republicans on Tuesday pressed a pair of ICE officials to take more aggressive steps to compel sanctuary cities to cooperate with federal law enforcers.

In response, Sarah Saldaña, assistant secretary of ICE, told lawmakers that officials are targeting 49 jurisdictions with the strongest sanctuary laws. Of those 49, 33 have said they’re willing to soften their practices, while only five have outright refused, she said.

“We’ll continue to work with them,” Saldaña vowed. 

But some lawmakers predicted the results of those talks will bear little fruit without specific policy reforms from Congress or the administration.

“I have serious doubts that we’ll see any change unless Congress takes some action [or] unless this administration takes some action,” Sessions said.

Leaving Tuesday’s hearing, Jim Steinle said he’s happy to return to Capitol Hill to help compel such action.

“Something needs to be done,” he said. “I believe we were heard. We’ll just move forward.”