Sanctuary Cities Add to a Complicated, Trump-Infused Immigration Problem for the GOP

Sixteen months before an election, Republicans are working to address sanctuary cities, but worry about being too narrow and negative.

The hearing room was silent except for the voice of a father.

Senators listened to the gripping testimony Tuesday from Jim Steinle who recounted how he was holding on, arm-and-arm, with his 32-year-old daughter Kathryn Steinle on a San Francisco pier when she was struck. A bullet, and his daughter was gone.

" 'Help me, Dad.' Those are the last words I will ever hear from my daughter," Steinle testified before the Senate's Judiciary Committee.

Steinle joined other victims' families: the mother of Josh Wilkerson, the brother of Dennis McCann, the uncle of Grant Ronnebeck, the wife of Deputy Sheriff Danny Oliver.

The witnesses had one thing in common: Their slain loved ones were the victims or alleged victims of illegal immigrants. After more than two years of inaction on comprehensive immigration reform, the focus on immigrants and what to do with them has come down to sanctuary cities—the cities, counties, and towns where local law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to cooperate with federal officials on immigration enforcement. With roughly sixteen months before a presidential election, a party that once admitted it was in dire need of making inroads with the Latino community has finally found an immigration issue to rally around. Only, it may not win them support from the Latino community. That's a problem made thornier by Donald Trump.

"We should have addressed the issue a long time ago, but the other side of it is, events trigger action," Sen. John McCain said. "Events drive legislation."

Republicans and Democrats alike recognize that the country must find some way to deport illegal immigrants who have felony records in the country, even if they are residing in a sanctuary city. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has pledged to make a legislative push, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has come out in support of limiting the power of officials in sanctuary cities.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican vying for the White House, last week introduced "Kate's law," which would lead to a mandatory five-year sentence on anyone who is deported and illegally reenters the U.S. The idea has been promoted by television personality Bill O'Reilly. Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Vitter tried to attach amendments to a Senate education bill last week that would have halted federal immigration funding to areas that don't comply with immigration enforcement.

Yet some Republicans, even those who support a change, are fearful that ignoring comprehensive immigration reform while devoting committee and floor time to a sanctuary-cities law could send the wrong message to Latino voters.

"If it morphs into more Trump-like accusations about people who are here, then it is a problem, but I have supported policies to deal with sanctuary cities," said Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. "I do worry that if we are looking at just one angle that it is easy to demagogue."

The Republican Party has already been fending off attacks that it is anti-immigrant. Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, who has been leading in recent polls, has only fanned the criticism with comments that Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. are frequently criminals.

"When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best," Trump said during his campaign launch in June. "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

Immigration policy is notoriously confounding for the GOP. In one instance, the party recognizes its need to appeal to Hispanic voters in order to win a general election. But to win a primary, Republican candidates have an opposing need to appeal to some conservative voters who feel strongly that illegal immigrants should be deported. It's the same dilemma that led presidential hopeful and Sen. Marco Rubio to renounce his own comprehensive immigration bill. And it's the same reason that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has at times struggled to articulate his position on whether immigrants living in the country illegally should have a shot at citizenship.

Some Republicans in the presidential field have used Trump's comments as an opportunity to distance themselves from anti-Latino rhetoric and signal to the Hispanic community that they want their votes, but others appear more worried about condemning the attacks and losing GOP base voters.

"I like Donald Trump," Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. "Others have chosen to throw rocks at Donald Trump. I am not going to be one of them."

Democrats see movements to jump on a sanctuary-cities bill as the GOP simply ignoring its promise two years ago to try to pass more sweeping reforms.

"That is the Trump agenda," Minority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin told National Journal. "We want to make our streets safe ... but if we are going to be serious about immigration, let's talk about it in the context of fixing the system, not just responding to the latest tragedy."

Tuesday morning, Minority Leader Harry Reid called out the party for not doing more to denounce Trump.

"It makes me wonder, where were all these same Republicans when Trump slandered millions?" Reid asked. "When Trump insulted the senator from Arizona, a member of his own party, Republicans couldn't denounce him fast enough, but when Trump called immigrants rapists, there was nothing but silence."

With time to actually set a 2016 agenda running down, this is not exactly where the Republican Party had pledged to be when they announced in 2012 that Mitt Romney's abysmal 27 percent of the Latino vote had to be improved upon.

A sanctuary-cities bill may be one of the only possible places where any immigration-reform policy moves on Capitol Hill between now and the election. After all, it is a prime opportunity for Republicans to admonish focus on the executive actions that have been key to Obama's presidency.

"How many rapists?" "How many drunk drivers?" "Yesterday, how many murderers did the Obama administration release?" Cruz asked Sarah Saldaña, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at various points during the sanctuary-cities hearing Tuesday.

The impression that the Republican Party is giving off—at least, if you listen chiefly to its loudest voices—is that maybe it's not all that interested in courting Latino voters after all.