Washington — A push by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, to penalize “sanctuary cities” for harboring undocumented immigrants failed in the Senate Tuesday when Democrats closed ranks against it.
The 54-45 vote to end debate on Vitter’s bill was short of the three-fifths majority, or 60 votes, that Senate rules require, and effectively kills the proposal.
But the action on the bill, which was fast-tracked to the Senate floor without going through the normal committee process, could provide publicity for Vitter that will help him in Saturday’s gubernatorial election in Louisiana. Vitter faces significant challenges from two Republicans and a Democrat in the open primary Saturday, with all candidates listed on the same ballot. Polls predict that Vitter and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite, will lead the field, qualifying for a head-to-head runoff Nov. 21. No Democrat has won a statewide election in Louisiana since 2008.
A member of the Senate Democratic leadership, Charles Schumer, of New York, said just before the bill failed Tuesday that the exercise was a “show vote,” and he suggested it was arranged by the ruling Republican majority to make Vitter look good with conservatives.
Vitter’s bill would have cut off some federal funding for cities that opt out of enforcement of federal immigration laws by local authorities.
Hundreds of cities, including New Orleans, have adopted such policies.
The issue of sanctuary cities was thrown into high relief by the July 1 shooting death of Kate Steinle, 32, in San Francisco and the political reaction to it. An undocumented Mexican immigrant has been charged in the shooting; he had been released from jail in San Francisco under that city’s sanctuary policy, despite a request from federal immigration officials that he be detained until they could take custody of him and deport him. The suspect has been deported five times in the past and has a record of seven felony convictions for drug and immigration violations.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has highlighted the case as part of his call for stricter immigration laws. The Republican-majority House of Representatives, which does not include the three-fifths requirement in its rules, has approved “Kate’s Law,” a measure subjecting sanctuary cities to penalties similar to those in Vitter’s bill.
“I refuse to simply stand by and reward jurisdictions around the country with federal funding, with taxpayer funds, when they are in clear violation of the law and they are actively making our communities more dangerous, instead of safer,” Vitter said Monday in floor debate on the bill.
“We know that there are many instances in which an illegal alien is released by local authorities and then commits a very serious crime,” Vitter said.
Two Democrats — Joe Donnelly, of Indiana, and Joe Manchin, of West Virginia — joined 52 Republicans in favor of moving ahead with Vitter’s bill Tuesday. One Republican — Mark Kirk, of Illinois — voted on the other side, while a second — Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina — did not vote.
Democratic President Barack Obama has threatened to veto Republican-supported sanctuary cities legislation.
“It’s maddening that the Democrats are encouraging sanctuary cities, like New Orleans, that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement and let dangerous criminal illegals free,” Vitter said in a statement released after the vote.
“As governor, I’ll demand that this change. In contrast, John Bel Edwards would support the Barack Obama/Mitch Landrieu position just like he does on tearing down historic monuments,” Vitter said.
Landrieu, the Democratic mayor of New Orleans, has proposed removing historic monuments in the city that honor Confederate war heroes and leaders and white citizens who fought to deny the rights of black residents during Reconstruction. Edwards has said that decision should be left to the city.
But Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, a GOP rival in the governor’s race, tweeted after the vote: “Sen. Vitter proved that he’s unable to deliver yet again. We cannot afford his Washington backlog here in Louisiana.”
Democrats in the U.S. Senate say the bill would demonize immigrants and be counterproductive because it would undercut efforts by police, who would be transformed into immigration enforcement officers, to build trust with immigrant communities.
“This bill does nothing more than instigate fear and divide our nation,” Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Democrats say the measure reflects the pernicious influence of Trump, the leader in the polls among Republican presidential contenders. The Democrats favor comprehensive immigration reform, along the lines of the policy incorporated in a bipartisan bill that passed in the Senate, then under Democratic control, in 2013 but died in the House.
In addition to the funding penalties, Vitter’s bill would increase maximum prison terms for immigrants caught repeatedly crossing the border illegally, and it would impose mandatory minimum terms for convicted felons who have been deported and re-enter the country and for immigrants who have been convicted of illegal entry two times previously.
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