Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, on the “Stop Sanctuary Cities Policies and Protect Americans Act,” S.2146

For the first time in more than two years, the Senate is turning its attention to an issue related to our broken immigration system.  But in stark contrast to the comprehensive, hopeful legislation last reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the majority is simply scheduling a show vote today on a divisive, partisan proposal that has not even been considered in the Judiciary Committee.  What a difference a change in leadership makes.

There are few topics more fundamental to who we are as a Nation than immigration. A consistent thread through our history is the arrival of new people to this country seeking a better life.  Immigration has been an ongoing source of renewal for America -- a renewal of our spirit, our creativity, and our economic strength.  

Two years ago, the Senate reaffirmed its commitment to these ideals when we approved S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.  That legislation, which was supported by 68 Senators from both parties, would have meaningfully improved our great country by making our communities safer, strengthening our economy, improving border security, and keeping families together.  It was a remarkable, bipartisan effort that was made better through the extensive amendment process in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  It was an example of all that we can accomplish when we actually focus on the hard job of legislating. 

The bill we are considering today could not be more different.  This legislation is not bipartisan. It does not reflect a desire to meaningfully improve what we all agree is a broken immigration system.  Instead, this bill is, as the New York Times editorialized on Saturday, “a class-action slander against an immigrant population that has been scapegoated for the crimes of a few, and left stranded by the failure of legislative reform that would open a path for them to live fully within the law.”

Those who support this bill point to a tragedy that captured our attention this summer.  Any time an innocent person is killed, we have an obligation to understand what happened and try to prevent similar tragedies in the future.  We all feel that way about the senseless and terribly cruel death of Kate Steinle.  Her death was avoidable.  Our system failed.  Period.  And it is heart-wrenching that such a beautiful, young life was taken by a man who should never have been free on our streets. 

We are motivated to do something in the wake of her death.  Just as we are motivated to act in the wake of the senseless killings of nine men and women attending a bible study class in Charleston, South Carolina.  Or the nine innocent people brutally murdered at an Oregon community college.  These are moments that demand leadership.  We should roll up our sleeves and start to address the problems that led us here.  We should address gun violence and the criminals who threaten our safety instead of characterizing entire immigrant communities as criminals. 

Unfortunately, it does not appear that we will be given that chance.  Rather than marking this legislation up in Committee with input and amendments from both sides, the bill before us was yanked off of the Judiciary Committee agenda once the Majority Leader decided to bring it straight to the floor.  Others can speculate about what motivated the timing of today's vote. What we know for sure is that this action goes against precisely what the Majority Leader promised last year when he said that “[b]ills should go through Committee.  And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”  It is disappointing that he has broken his promise on legislation of such importance.

If this bill were to become law, it would create two new mandatory minimums and cost us millions of dollars that we do not have. This would deny funding for critical services in local communities, and do nothing to fix the broken immigration system we have today.  At a time when the Judiciary Committee is engaged in a thoughtful, bipartisan effort to reform our criminal justice system and save taxpayers money in the process, it makes no sense to forego that process for considering this immigration bill. 

If we are really trying to make our communities safer, we should listen to the police officers and law enforcement officials who dedicate their lives to that very mission. We should listen to domestic violence advocates who say the approach in this partisan bill will have a dangerous effect on the lives of women and children at risk.  They are telling us this bill will make our communities less safe.  It will undermine the trust and cooperation between police officers and immigrant communities.  It will damage efforts to prevent crime and weaken their ability to apprehend those who prey on the public.  That is why the National Fraternal Order of Police is opposed to policies that would be implemented by this bill.  It is why the National Taskforce to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women opposes this bill.  It is why the U.S. Conference of Mayors opposes this bill.  I ask unanimous consent that letters from the National Fraternal Order of Police and the National Taskforce to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women be included in the record.

I agree with Senator Heller, who noted that “For two years we haven’t had a discussion and so all the sudden we’re going to bring up an immigration issue and not talk about the bigger issue.”  The problems plaguing our immigration system demand that we respond thoughtfully and responsibly.  We can do better.  We owe it to the American public to do better. I urge senators to vote against cloture on this partisan bill that will not make us safer.

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