Senate Republicans are planning a vote on a controversial immigration bill this month punishing sanctuary cities like San Francisco that give safe harbor to immigrants in the U.S. illegally — months after authorities say an undocumented immigrant shot and killed a young woman on a San Francisco pier.
The legislation from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) would target sanctuary cities — localities where local law enforcement officials decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities — by withholding key federal grants and increasing prison sentences for those who try to re-enter the United States after being deported.
“That will be the comeback vote, in all likelihood, for after the next break,” Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said Wednesday. He was referring to the week of Oct. 19, after next week’s Senate recess. The vote would come days before Louisiana’s gubernatorial election on Oct. 24; Vitter, a candidate in that race, has been struggling in the campaign.
The sanctuary cities issue, which exploded in the public sphere after the July 1 death of Kate Steinle in San Francisco, had been kicked to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans struggled to come to a consensus on legislation. The suspect in the slaying, Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, had been deported from the United States five times before he returned and allegedly killed Steinle.
That month, Vitter repeatedly called for attaching sanctuary cities legislation to a sweeping rewrite of No Child Left Behind, a move that could have threatened the prospects of the largely bipartisan education reform bill. Vitter ultimately struck a deal with Senate GOP leaders to take up the immigration measure in the Judiciary Committee instead — a move that saved the education bill but became an unresolved headache for Judiciary Committee Republicans that has persisted for nearly three months because of intraparty rifts on the issue.
Many Republicans — including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination — lobbied for a bill that would implement a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years for an illegal reentry offense as a key part of the party’s response on sanctuary cities. Cruz had been highlighting his efforts to pass that provision on the campaign trail, which Republicans named “Kate’s Law” after Steinle.
But other GOP senators, including Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Flake of Arizona, opposed that idea. The split increased the likelihood that a tough-on-illegal-immigration proposal would not be able to pass a Republican-led panel. The committee’s chairman, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, had to delay marking up the bill multiple times.
And some Republicans could also defect during the Senate floor battle. In an interview Wednesday, Flake — a longtime GOP advocate of comprehensive immigration reform — said he would oppose the sanctuary cities legislation on the floor if the mandatory minimum provisions weren’t “fixed.”
“I won’t vote for it unless there is some adjustment on the mandatory minimums,” Flake said.