Immigration Bill Roundup: Sanctuary Cities, Court Oversight

Though political will to cooperate on immigration-related issues has been in short stock lately, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have introduced legislation over the last month tackling sanctuary cities, immigration court reform, family reunification and illegal reentry to the U.S.

Here, we recap their proposals in detail.

Reforms For Independent Immigration Courts

Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California introduced legislation on April 18 that would protect immigration courts from political interference by reforming their performance appraisals, creating a transparent judicial complaint process and other provisions.

The move came shortly after the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which reports to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, moved to evaluate immigration judges against case quotas to encourage expedient proceedings in light of the ever-growing court backlog. The American Bar Association and the National Association of Immigration Judges, the immigration judges’ union, have vehemently opposed the quotas, saying that they interfere with the full and fair adjudication of cases.

“NAIJ applauds Senator Hirono for leading the effort in Congress to address the structural flaws with the Immigration Court,” NAIJ president Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor said in a statement. “This bill takes an important first step in protecting the independent decision making authority of the Immigration Judges and the integrity of the court. We urge Congress to promptly act on this important issue.”

The bill would ensure that the Attorney General would not intervene in the immigration courts’ independent decision-making and that they “not be disciplined for good-faith judicial decisions,” Hirono’s office said in a statement. It would also bar the case quotas from being implemented, as well as any other system of completion goals.

Moreover, it would ensure that immigration judges would be evaluated under the proper Code of Judicial Conduct, as opposed to attorney conduct, and that they preserve the requisite judicial status with the bar of their states’ highest courts.

Cuts to Sanctuary City Law Enforcement Funding

Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., has introduced legislation that would bar sanctuary jurisdictions from receiving particular grant funding related to immigration enforcement.

The bill targets the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, under which the Department of Justice reimburses local jurisdictions for the salaries of correctional officers working with incarcerated criminal noncitizens. It differs from other legislation targeting sanctuary cities in that it would not cut federal funding for local anti-terrorism initiatives.

The most recent available data from fiscal year 2016 indicates that the program doled out $188 million to state and local governments – almost $30 million of which went to the state of New York. Donovan’s office estimated in a statement that it would affect more than 600 jurisdictions.

“Our government’s greatest responsibility is to protect the American people, and sanctuary city policies prevent us from fulfilling that duty,” Donovan said in a statement. “We are a nation of laws – and cities and politicians can’t pick and choose which rules to follow. It’s common sense that those unwilling to cooperate with federal authorities not be eligible to receive certain federal grant funding. The message this bill sends is clear: no person, state, or locality is above the law.”

Legalizing Immigrant Parents, Spouses

Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, introduced legislation on April 13 to allow the Department of Homeland Security to grant lawful permanent resident status to the previously deported parents and spouses of U.S. citizens.

Under current statute, noncitizens who attempt to enter the U.S. without authorization, who attempted illegal re-entry or who were deported cannot apply for citizenship in the U.S. Green’s bill, which had some 24 co-sponsors, would eliminate those restrictions for spouses or parents of U.S. citizens who do not have prior criminal convictions and are found to be of “good moral character.”

“Families are a cornerstone of our country, and our government should not be in the business of tearing them apart,” Green said in a statement. “We need legislation like The Reentry and Reunification Act to create a more just and humane immigration system and ensure that we are giving all hardworking families every opportunity to thrive.”

Crackdown On Illegal Re-entries

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, on April 17 introduced a bill creating sentencing enhancements for illegal re-entry offenses and clarifying how they must be served.

The bill would elevate unlawful presence in the U.S. to an aggravating factor for any federal criminal offense and prevent convicted criminals from counting time served in a state facility from counting towards an existing sentence for an immigration-related crime. It would also permit prosecutors to weigh crimes committed after unlawful re-entry on the federal level to ensure that further sentences on the state level cannot be served in place of federal sentences.

“I’m glad my colleagues are joining me in stopping illegal criminal aliens from falling through the cracks of our criminal justice system,” he said.