Iowa House OKs penalties for 'sanctuary cities'

Democrats argue bill addresses non-existent problem


DES MOINES — After a lengthy and sometimes acrimonious debate, the Iowa House passed legislation that would withhold state funding from cities and counties that refuse to comply with a written federal detainer request for an undocumented immigrant in their custody.

“For the safety of our communities,” Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, called for passage of Senate File 481 to enforce the rule of law and ensure “the traditional cooperation that has existed between state, local and federal authorities continues.”

Holt wanted to make sure that Iowa law enforcement cooperates with federal authorities — Immigration and Customs Enforcement, specifically — when they are seeking undocumented immigrants who entered the country illegally.

The House went along with Holt, voting 55-45 to pass the bill that must be approved by the Senate before going to the governor, who has indicated she will sign it.

The vote was largely along party lines but for one Democrat voting for it and five Republicans voting against it.

Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, chided Holt and supporters of the bill, calling it the culmination of the anti-undocumented immigrant comments that started Donald Trump’s campaign for president. He called Holt’s views on immigrants and sanctuary cities “narrow-minded and somewhat prejudicial.”

A central theme of opponents’ comments was that there are no sanctuary cities in Iowa and there is not a problem with Iowa law enforcement honoring detainers if federal agencies get warrants.


“There have been no official actions taken by any city in Iowa to designate themselves as sanctuary cities,” Hunter said. “There are none. Nada. Nothing.”

The bill calls for withholding state funds for up to 90 days if cities and counties do not comply with the law. That would apply to road-use tax funds, state property tax replacements, tuition replacement, flood mitigation projects, community college funding, Iowa Economic Development Authority grants and other state funds.

Holt sought to dispel concerns raised by a Legislative Services Agency fiscal analysis that said schools could be impacted. He pointed out the bill, as written, applies only to the governing bodies of cities and counties.

It’s not only the rule of law at stake, according to Holt, but the state treasury. He cited a 2004 Legislative Services Agency estimate that undocumented immigrants cost the state general fund $107 million a year. “It is probably safe to assume that cost in 2018 is higher,” he said.

Regardless of cost estimates and the rule of law argument, Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, found it difficult to put into words how she felt about the bill.

“There’s something in my gut that says this is wrong. It feels horribly wrong,” she said. “As a Christian, I cannot do this.”

Rather than uphold the rule of law, Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said the bill “subverts the rule of law.”

Before voting, lawmakers should ask themselves why they would give the federal government more authority with less oversight than they would give Iowa law enforcement.


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After listening to roughly two dozen Democrats speak against the bill — some more than once — and reference the fact that only one lobbying group supported the bill, Holt told the House, “There is a big group, they’re not a lobbying group that supports this legislation. That’s the people of Iowa and the people of the United States.”

Because the House amended the bill, it must go back to the Senate, which passed it, 32-15, almost a year ago. If the Senate concurs, it will go to Gov. Kim Reynolds who not only has voiced support for the legislation but used the issue in a fundraising appeal for her election campaign.

“One of my top, No. 1 priorities to make sure that Iowans are safe,” Reynolds said at a news conference earlier this year. “I think we need to honor the laws that are on the books and if they’ve made a decision to break the law, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say we need to bring the federal government in and have them follow through with the laws that are on the books.”

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