Kathryn Steinle's father tells Congress: Overhaul immigration laws

The father of the woman shot to death this month on a San Francisco pier, allegedly by a man deported five times to Mexico, urged lawmakers Tuesday to overhaul what he called “disjointed” immigration laws as Obama administration officials defended their approach to immigration enforcement.

The woman, Kathryn Steinle, was walking arm-in-arm with her father July 1 on Pier 14 when she was shot in the chest. The suspect in Steinle’s death, Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, had seven felonies on his record.

While acknowledging the complexity of immigration reform, Steinle’s father, Jim, urged senators to close legal loopholes.

“Legislation should be discussed, enacted or changed to take these undocumented immigrant felons off our streets for good,” Steinle told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

His daughters final words to him were, “Help me, Dad,” he testified.

The director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sarah Saldaña, defended the Obama administration’s strategy on immigration reform, including working with local governments on communicating on handing over inmates.

“We’re working very hard with a host of jurisdictions, counties and cities,” Saldaña said, adding that she recognized that the issues and needs of communities in Texas are different from those in Los Angeles.

Sanchez had been released from San Francisco County jail in April after drug charges against him were dropped. At the time, federal immigration officials had a standing request that he be kept in custody 48 hours beyond his release date until they could take him into custody. But San Francisco is what’s known as a sanctuary city, meaning city employees are barred from inquiring into or disclosing a person’s immigration status short of a warrant or court order.

Anti-immigration activists have seized on Steinle’s death as an example of the need for more stringent enforcement of immigration laws. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was adamant during Tuesday’s hearing that Sanchez’s criminal record shows “the failure of the system.” Feinstein cited Steinle’s death as a tragedy that “could have been avoided.”

“Law enforcement should have notified the immigration authorities,” she insisted.

Feinstein urged San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to join the Department of Homeland Security’s new initiative, Priority Enforcement Program, that asks local law enforcement to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials 48 hours before the release of a person flagged for possible deportation. The program replaces the widely reviled Secure Communities under which inmates were routinely held beyond their release date until ICE agents could pick them up. Activists have complained that thousands of people with no violent criminal records were deported.

But the Priority Enforcement Program has gotten little support from local officials around the country, who see it as too similar to Secure Communities.

Lee has said he believes that the sanctuary policy allows for a better, less strenuous relationship between immigrant populations and law enforcement, and that immigrants in the country illegally can be important informants and witnesses if they don’t fear deportation.

At the hearing, senators grappled with how to require sanctuary-city jurisdictions to adhere to federal law. Saldaña said federal officials are working with local governments that operate under sanctuary city policies to reach solutions tailored to them.

Saldaña was hopeful that once she understood local problems, she could better help without having to “hit the jurisdictions over the head with a federal hammer.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced legislation Tuesday targeting sanctuary jurisdictions. His bill would withhold federal funding and some grants to states where local law enforcement fail to cooperate with the federal government in holding or transferring people in the country illegally. Those reentering the U.S. after deportation would risk at least five years in prison.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) pushed back against some provisions of the bill, warning that “the notion that we have a minimum five-year sentence seems to be an invitation for a lot of prosecutions,” overburdening an already overwhelmed system for what ICE officials consider a low-level offense.

Twitter: @tomanmiller

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