Bill banning safe havens for illegal immigrants advances to La. House floor

Bill banning safe havens for illegal immigrants advances to House floor
Published: Apr. 21, 2016 at 11:43 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 22, 2016 at 2:15 AM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A bill that would ban so-called "sanctuary cities," which are jurisdictions that provide safe haven for undocumented immigr ants, overcame its first hurdle at the State Capitol on Thursday.

The House Judiciary Committee passed HB 151 without objection after nearly three hours of debate.

Supporters of the bill, including newly-minted Attorney General Jeff Landry, label two Louisiana parishes as "sanctuary" jurisdictions: Orleans and Lafayette. The city of New Orleans itself is also labeled as such.

"You just as soon put a sign at the gate of that city saying terrorists are welcome here," Landry said.

Kris Kobach, Kansas' Secretary of State and a supporter of the legislation, criticized those jurisdiction for having policies that restrict what police can do to enforce federal immigration law. That includes, he told the committee, not detaining immigr ants on behalf of federal officials without a court order.

"It's only a matter of time before someone who is released back onto the street goes on to commit an crime of violence. And I just hope you can act before that happens," Kobach said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, would ban those sorts of policies in Louisiana. If certain jurisdictions persisted, they would lose the ability to get bond money from the state for big construction projects.

"We're empowering law enforcement to be able to ask a question, if they need to," Hodges said.

In many ways, the measure is focused on New Orleans, where the police recently adopted a policy preventing officers from asking individuals about their immigration status. That rule was implemented in order to comply with a federally-mandated consent decree, which was ordered by a court following lawsuits about potentially unconstitutional police practices by the New Orleans Police Department.

For members of the immigr ant community, that policy shift helped build trust in the police, thereby improving NOPD's ability to fight crime.

"Previous to this policy, whenever a crime will happen or we'll be victims of a crime, we will just not feel comfortable talking to the police. But now, since there's more communication and relationship, it hasn't only helped the immigr ant community but the community as a whole," said Ilda Sarmiento, an immigr ant who has lived in New Orleans for a decade. She was translated by Fernando Lopez, a fellow member of the Congress of Day Laborers.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans, expressed concern that Hodges' bill would be at direct odds with the consent decree, and would force the city to choose between complying with one or the other.

And if they had to choose the bill over the consent decree, some lawmakers said that they worried that the bill could open the door to a return to discriminatory policing.

"It could be religious profiling, it could be racial profiling, it could be cultural profiling," said Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite.

And that, some lawmakers worried, could lead to lawsuits and litigation against police departments, thereby creating a financial burden they cannot handle.

Meanwhile, NOPD leaders told lawmakers that if there is a federal criminal warrant out for an individual, they will certainly turn them over to federal officials. However, if an undocumented individual did not commit a crime, they are out of their jurisdiction.

"Immigration law is federal law, not state law. So a lot of this discussion has to do with compelling state officials to enforce federal law," said Tim Averill, deputy superintendent of the NOPD Compliance Bureau.

In addition to the Hodges bill, a companion bill by Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, also passed through the committee without objection.

HB 453 would require the sanctuary city to compensate victims of crimes conducted by undocumented individuals if law enforcement interacted with those individuals and did not ask their immigration status. The same would apply if the city did not comply with a federal request to detain the individual.

The office of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu released the following statement in response to the House committee's actions Thursday:

"We are disappointed with the House Judiciary Committee's vote and will continue to advocate our position during the legislative session.

The NOPD's immigration policy does not make the City of New Orleans a 'sanctuary city.' There is no uniform definition of this term and is being applied inconsistently.

NOPD's bias-free policing policy is required by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and was drafted in partnership with DOJ's Civil Rights Division, the Federal Consent Decree Monitor and NOPD's compliance bureau to ensure constitutionality, workability and consistency. Additionally, the entire process falls under the oversight jurisdiction of Judge Susie Morgan of the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Officials from the New Orleans office of the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were also consulted in the drafting of this policy.

NOPD will continue to work with federal immigration officials when there is a criminal warrant or following a crime, but their priority is going after violent criminals, not raiding churches and markets to intimidate immigr ant communities or working with ICE to rip mothers from their young children.

Public safety is our top priority. NOPD's policy is aimed at making our city safer by giving immigr ants more opportunities to cooperate with law enforcement so we can arrest and punish the violent criminals in our community, immigr ant or otherwise."

Both bills now head to the House floor for consideration.

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