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D.C. Drawn Into Sanctuary Cities Debate

Gohmert introduced "The Safer DC Act" Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House has voted to limit funding for so-called sanctuary cities, but one lawmaker is pushing to take further action in the District of Columbia, dictating specific policies for law enforcement.  

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, has introduced "The Safer D.C. Act" declaring the District is a "sanctuary city," or a jurisdiction with policies that shelter undocumented immigrants. "The Constitution explicitly vests Congress with exclusive jurisdiction over the District of Columbia — and we should take action," Gohmert said. "Therefore, at the very least, Congress must use our explicit Constitutional power to ensure that at least the District of Columbia is not a sanctuary city.” “In the wake of the tragic murder of San Francisco resident, Kate Steinle, by a five-time deported illegal criminal alien, it is important to realize that the District of Columbia is in fact also a sanctuary city like San Francisco," Gohmert said in a statement, pointing to the murder highlighted at congressional hearings  last week.  

Republicans allege sanctuary cities foster a dangerous environment that lead to events such as Steinle's death. The White House has punched back, saying Republican lawmakers contributed to the situation by failing to pass an overhaul of immigration laws. On June 24, the House voted along mostly party lines to withhold funding to these cities. But Gohmert argues Congress could go further when addressing D.C.'s policies, given the body's oversight of the District.  

Gohmert alleged that when someone is arrested in the District who lacks paperwork regarding his or her immigration status, police officers "are prohibited from both investigating immigration matters and also contacting Immigration and Customs Enforcement."  

District officials dispute his characterization. One official pointed to the District law Gohmert appeared to be referring to, known as the Immigration Detainer Compliance Amendment Act of 2012. The law stipulates under which conditions the District should comply with ICE requests to detain citizens suspected of violating federal immigration law, thus allowing law enforcement to comply with ICE requests.  

The law notes the District "shall exercise discretion" over whether to comply with a detainer request, and the District may comply under a number of conditions. For instance, D.C. police may comply if the detainee is 18 years of age or older and if he or she has been convicted of a dangerous or violent crime.  

Gohmert's legislation would require officials to provide information to the Department of Homeland Security to determine the immigration status of people arrested in D.C.  

If the department determines that person is "inadmissible or deportable," Homeland Security would be required to issue a detainer, and D.C. would be required to comply and then place the individual in federal custody. The DHS and District officials would face penalties and fines if they failed to comply with the requirements.  

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department warned of increased tensions between police and the District community should Gohmert's bill become law.  

"The proposed 'The Safer D.C. Act,' contrary to its title, stands in direct conflict with the fundamental mission of local law enforcement agencies to protect and serve all those who reside within their respective communities," MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump wrote in a July 24 email.  

"Forcing local police to enforce civil or administrative immigration laws will only serve to drive a wedge of fear and distrust between police officers and the community they serve," Crump continued. "Ultimately, MPD officers are responsible for providing high quality police services to all of the many diverse communities of the District of Columbia, and we will continue to carry out that important mission."  

House Democrats echoed Crump's contention that such laws would increase tensions between police and the immigrant community. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said the bill would deter immigrants from contacting police, rendering them "easy prey for criminals."

"Rep. Gohmert thinks he knows how better to protect our city than officials elected to bear that responsibility," Norton said in a July 23 statement.

On top of her criticisms of the substance Gohmert's bill, which was introduced on July 22, Norton also tossed a common critique of Republicans who look to affect District policies.

"Rep. Gohmert, a tea party leader, is violating his professed principles of local control of local affairs by seeking to overturn local law and to substitute the judgment of federal officials for a local government," Norton said.

In a statement, Gohmert responded to that criticism, saying, “My principles are for local control of local matters; however, when the local officials refuse to obey existing and applicable federal laws governing a matter that the Constitution makes clear is a matter for Congress to govern, then the local officials force ‎the need for enforcement of the Constitutional laws to prevent the spread of further lawlessness.”

Gohmert's legislation garnered support from at least one fellow member of Congress. A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who sponsored the bill the House passed on July 23, praised Gohmert's work.

"Rep. Hunter supports any effort to crackdown on sanctuary cities—including DC," wrote Hunter's chief of staff, Joe Kasper on July 24. "I don’t know the details of Rep. Gohmert’s bill, but he too has been out front on sanctuary cities like others have, and it’s good to have this and other bills out there as the House considers what to do next."

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