WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House on Thursday pressed ahead with legislation to crack down on illegal immigration, a key priority for President Donald Trump.
One bill would strip federal dollars from self-proclaimed "sanctuary" cities that shield residents from federal immigration authorities, while a separate bill would stiffen punishments for people who re-enter the U.S. illegally.
Trump often railed against illegal immigration during his presidential campaign, and his support for tougher immigration policies is crucial to his voting base. Trump met at the White House on Wednesday with more than a dozen people whose family members were killed by people in the country illegally, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is set to meet with the families Thursday.
One of the bills, known as "Kate's Law," would impose harsher prison sentences on deportees who re-enter the United States. The bill is named after 32-year old Kathryn Steinle, who was shot and killed in California in 2015 by a man who was in the country illegally. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who pleaded not guilty to the crime, had been released by sheriff's officials months earlier despite a request by immigration officials to keep him behind bars.
A second bill would bar states and localities that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities from receiving certain Justice Department and Homeland Security grants, including some related to law enforcement and terrorism.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said he appreciates Congress' effort to "address the dangers of sanctuary cities and illegal immigrant offenders."
At a news conference at the Capitol with House Speaker Paul Ryan, Kelly said his agency "will enforce the laws that are passed by Congress," adding: "I am offended when members of this institution put pressure and often threaten me and my officers to ignore the laws they make."
Kelly did not elaborate on what threats or pressure he was referring to.
The Justice Department's inspector general has identified California and major cities such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia as locales with barriers to information-sharing among local police and immigration officials. The Trump administration warned nine jurisdictions in late April that they could lose coveted law enforcement grant money unless they document cooperation.
Trump said Wednesday that the two House bills would close "dangerous loopholes exploited by criminals, gang members, drug dealers, killers, terrorists." He told family members gathered at the White House that they'd "lost the people that you love because our government refused to enforce our nation's immigration laws."
Sessions said in a statement that Steinle's death was preventable, adding that "she would still be alive today if only the city of San Francisco had put the public's safety first. How many more Americans must die before we put an end to this madness?"
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said "Kate's Law" would not have had an impact on the Steinle case, noting that Steinle was killed in July 2015 by an immigrant who had been mistakenly released by the federal Bureau of Prisons.
The proposed bill "would not have kept Kate Steinle's killer off the streets," Gutierrez said. "Instead, we are voting on a bill to put other people - in different circumstances - in jail for longer periods of time. It is a bait-and-switch strategy: use a horrible tragedy to sell a policy that would not have prevented that death, so that you put more immigrants in jail for longer periods of time."