‘Kate’s Law’ is a misguided reaction to tragedy

Jim Steinle, second from left, father of Kathryn Steinle, testifies at a Senate Judiciary hearing Tuesday on the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement policies.
Jim Steinle, second from left, father of Kathryn Steinle, testifies at a Senate Judiciary hearing Tuesday on the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement policies. The Associated Press

The tragic killing of Kathryn Steinle on Pier 14 earlier this month, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant who had a long criminal record and had already been deported several times, has prompted political leaders to weigh in on immigration law and San Francisco’s sanctuary city ordinance.

Many Republican presidential candidates are supporting “Kate’s Law,” a bill before Congress that proposes to imprison noncitizens convicted of re-entering the country for five years. The House could vote on it as soon as Thursday.

Such a proposal, however, will not truly address the concern of removing serious criminals from our streets. Instead, it would imprison many low- and medium-skilled workers who are not dangerous to the community and lack legal avenues for coming to the United States.

To address the nation’s immigration concerns, we need to focus deportations on serious criminals and reform our immigration laws along the following principles.

First, while state and local agencies are the primary enforcers of the criminal laws, immigration enforcement today is – and should be – in the near-exclusive hands of the federal government. Local police are better able to combat crime when all residents, including lawful and undocumented immigrants, trust the police and do not fear deportation if they report a crime or cooperate as witnesses.

Second, state and local governments must be allowed to establish law enforcement priorities tailored for their communities and decide how to appropriately cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. Under the now-dismantled Secure Communities program, the U.S. government required state and local police agencies to share arrest information about criminal suspects and to detain noncitizens arrested until federal authorities could take custody for possible removal. Deportations soared to record highs – around 400,000 a year – but many of those removed committed minor, nonviolent offenses.

Third and most crucially, the federal government must focus removal efforts on serious criminals. Some cities and states, concerned with the overbroad impacts of Secure Communities, have resisted cooperating with the federal government in immigration enforcement. In ending Secure Communities, the Obama administration announced a new Priority Enforcement Program designed to focus on serious criminals. This focus is consistent with the president’s deferred action program for undocumented immigrants without criminal records. The use of prosecutorial discretion to direct limited resources at the most significant public safety risks makes perfect sense. If the administration implemented such a program, the nation would be in a better position to keep dangerous people off the streets and out of the country.

Following these principles should help address some of the concerns that have fueled sanctuary city ordinances such as San Francisco’s, under which police only turn over noncitizens if required by state or federal law or presented with an arrest warrant. In the Steinle case, Immigration and Customs Enforcement demanded that the suspect be held but failed to present an arrest warrant or point to a law requiring that he be turned over. ICE simply failed to comply with the San Francisco ordinance.

It is time for a collective deep breath and to think about what can be done to avoid such tragedies. Congress should focus on passing immigration reform that includes a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants and that allows immigrants who want to work to enter the U.S. lawfully. We should avoid looking for quick fixes that demonize immigrants as criminals and kicking the can on true reform to the next generation.

Kevin R. Johnson is dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law. Rose Cuison Villazor is a professor at the law school.