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Katie Steinle and the Morality of Sanctuary Cities

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The moral obligation of society regarding illegal immigrants remains at the center of the political debate on immigration. Numerous questions surround the proper “status” for illegal immigrants, how the state should respond, and the responsibility of American citizens over various humanitarian concerns. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution combined with numerous Supreme Court rulings, has established that the federal government has “plenary power” over immigration and is solely entitled to make laws in accordance with this authority. These laws establish the framework for ordered and legal immigration which most would agree is highly beneficial to society as well as being a foundational part of American history. However, when cities and municipalities disregard the rule of law on immigration, humanitarian issues become clouded and morality is challenged.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), there are over 200 “sanctuary cities” in the United States. These are cities or municipalities that have laws or policies that forbid compliance with federal immigration authorities. Local authorities are required by federal law to inform Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they apprehend someone and find that they are an illegal immigrant. Places that have given themselves a sanctuary designation do not inform ICE or turn over an immigrant upon discovering illegal status.

Recently, the issue of sanctuary cities made headlines after the shooting death of 32-year-old Katie Steinle. She was killed by a Mexican immigrant named Francisco Sanchez, who had previously been deported to Mexico five times for committing various felonies, and was currently under the custody of San Francisco police. ICE apprehended him in March but due to an outstanding drug warrant, he was turned over to San Francisco along with an immigration detainer so ICE could regain custody if San Francisco decided to release him. San Francisco dropped their drug charges against Sanchez and released him without notifying ICE due to their policy as a sanctuary city. As a result, a seven-time felon that had illegally crossed the border at least five times was released into the general public.

Sanctuary city policies caused the release of more than 8,000 criminal offenders sought by ICE over just an eight-month period according to CIS. Nearly 1,900 of those released were subsequently arrested for another crime within the same eight-month period.

Not only has the open defiance of federal law gone completely unchallenged, it has received tacit endorsement from the government. In response to a question of whether new laws to penalize local officials for breaking federal law were needed, ICE Director Sarah Saldana recently said, “Any effort at federal legislation now to mandate state and local law enforcement’s compliance… will be a highly counterproductive step… in our overall efforts to promote public safety.”

Political expediency in the name of public safety has come to be the overriding concern of the current administration in the face of a chaotic immigration scene and rampant dereliction of enforcement. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that in any sphere, the federal government actively discourages the enforcement of its laws.

Not all illegal immigrants are felons and many of them are very productive members of society, but as a country, the United States must decide whether it will be governed by the rule of law or whether each city will decide for itself which federal laws it will enforce. There is a strong presumption of states’ rights in the Constitution to determine what is in the best interests of its citizens, but immigration is one exception as it has repeatedly been ruled that immigration is solely within the purview of Congress. Legally and practically it follows that the federal government has a legitimate interest in knowing who crosses its borders.

There are valid moral arguments on both sides of the immigration issue regarding a pathway to citizenship, work permits, and border security; but there should be no debate, moral or otherwise, that an individual city should be the sole arbiter over which federal laws it enforces when it comes to immigration or that illegal immigrants that are multiple felons should go free because of compliance with a city directive.

The federal government condoning and supporting sanctuary cities sends a bad moral message to the country. Not only is it promoting deliberate defiance of federal law, it sets a moral precedent for those entering the country illegally that breaking the law will not necessarily subject one to any penalty or consequence. This message has trickled down from the highest levels and is seen by the recurrence of multiple deportations for the same people and in the recidivism rates for criminal illegal immigrants.

Immigration is a good thing but it must be accompanied by the rule of law. Open borders and cities that actively thwart federal immigration law lead to chaos and send the wrong message to current and prospective legal immigrants. Breaking the law should never be incentivized, neither for those crossing the border illegally nor for those business owners who seek to hire illegal workers. Comprehensive reform is needed and the rule of law should be central to any proposed plan. Allowing cities to continue to flout federal law will only lead to more lawlessness and more victims like Katie Steinle. An orderly immigration system within the rule of law contributes to culture and society by diversity and increased opportunity while providing a moral framework to advance virtues and humanitarian interests.

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Zack Pruitt Zack Pruitt holds a J.D. from Saint Louis University School of Law and is the Founder and General Editor of www.politicalbeacon.com.

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