Sanctuary Cities: The Latest Immigration Divide for the Republican Party

Republicans don't see eye to eye when it comes to forcing local governments to follow federal immigration law.

Conservatives want to crack down on cities and states that resist working with the federal government to halt the flow of illegal immigrants, but the Republican Party is divided once again on how to navigate the tumultuous politics of immigration.

Since an illegal immigrant allegedly shot and killed 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf earlier this month, federal lawmakers and presidential candidates have begun grappling with how best to stop dozens of "sanctuary cities" that exist in the country.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told an audience in New Hampshire Wednesday that sanctuary cities should simply be eliminated.

"Talking about things the federal government can do, we shouldn't provide law enforcement monies for cities like San Francisco until they change their policies," Bush said, according to a report from the Associated Press.

"Sanctuary cities" isn't a legal definition, but one that has been adopted to refer to state, local, and county governments that don't fully cooperate with federal officials when it comes to identifying and deporting immigrants living in the country illegally. The topic has reemerged since Steinle was allegedly shot and killed by a man who had been deported five times, but had been released in San Francisco. Those who defend sanctuary cities say they are essential to helping immigrants feel comfortable reporting crime and more fully integrate into a community. Opponents, mostly Republicans, say sanctuary cities encourage unlawful immigration.

Those opponents are speaking up on the Hill. In the Senate, freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has introduced an amendment to an education-reform bill that would withhold law-enforcement and immigration funding to local governments that don't cooperate fully with federal immigration agents. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana also introduced an amendment to defund sanctuary cities. A similar bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives.

Cotton says he is unsure if his amendment will get a vote this time around, but "I have received very good feedback that they want to address this problem. I will continue to push for Senate floor time."

Some Republicans, on the other hand—even those who are deeply troubled by the existence of sanctuary cities—believe that cutting off federal funding may be too harsh a punishment.

"That is a pretty blunt instrument. There are other ways to deal with it," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas.

Eradicating sanctuary cities pits two core Republican priorities against one another: enforcing immigration policies versus making sure that the federal government doesn't get overly involved in local and state affairs.

"It is anarchy if you have cities deciding which laws passed by the Congress of the United States and signed by the president that they are going to obey or disobey," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

But Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said that he doesn't believe it's right for the federal government to dictate local laws.

"I always have the attitude that people in the local areas can decide for themselves what kind of governance they want," Hatch said. "I think that it is ridiculous to do what San Francisco has done, but I still think they ought to have the right to do what they want to."

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said that he doesn't understand how anyone in his party could be against Cotton's amendment.

"I think that is a perfectly modest action," he said. "I'm shocked by anybody who would say that this wouldn't be a normal or appropriate response."

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, however, says those in his party fighting for the amendment should look harder at a comprehensive approach rather than tangling themselves up in individual amendment squabbles.

"This is a symptom of a broken immigration system," said Graham, a presidential contender. "To all those who voted against comprehensive immigration reform all these years, please understand that the longer we take to fix this, the more problems like this that will exist."

But while Republicans are deeply divided on how to best handle the issue, Democrats are working on their own separate approach. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, says you have to draw the line somewhere. The California senator was mayor in 1985 when sanctuary laws were first put in place in the city. She says at the time, the idea was to protect clergy fleeing persecution from El Salvador and Guatemala.

"It has changed dramatically since then," Feinstein said. "Cities are going to have to take a look at what the present situation is. If you are going to use this for felonies, it is a real problem."

Feinstein plans to introduce a bill with her fellow Californian Sen. Barbara Boxer that would bar cities from not cooperating with federal officials when it comes to deporting immigrants with felony criminal records.

"Sanctuary cannot be used for a felony," Feinstein said.

Cotton says he is not opposed to working across the aisle on the issue.

"I am going to work with senators in both parties actually to address this," Cotton said. "I am open to other mechanisms, but [funding] is one of the most immediate ways that came to my mind to stop this problem."