JEFFERSON CITY — A bill to require local cooperation with federal immigration authorities is intended to keep Missourians safer, but opponents raised concerns that it could break down trust in law enforcement and encourage racial profiling.
SB 589, discussed in a public hearing for the Senate General Laws Committee on Tuesday, would prohibit law enforcement agencies and all political subdivisions from adopting "sanctuary policies."
As defined by the bill, that includes any policy that limits cooperation with certain Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests, prevents officers from asking people’s immigration status or violates federal law regarding communication with the Department of Homeland Security. Missouri law already prohibits cities from having sanctuary policies.
Cities that do not comply are ineligible for state grants until they repeal the policy.
Sen. Eric Burlison, the bill’s sponsor, said he became aware of gaps in the state’s anti-sanctuary law after an undocumented immigrant killed three people in Springfield. The man had been released from jail in New Jersey despite a request from ICE, known as a detainer, that he be held longer.
ICE sometimes issues detainers to other law enforcement agencies asking that they hold immigrants past their scheduled release dates so that ICE can take them into custody.
Burlison said law enforcement organizations typically honor detainers from other federal agencies, such as the FBI.
He told the Missourian that he doesn’t know of any Missouri law enforcement agencies that would have to change their policies if the bill becomes law, but he wants to prevent future problems.
Although the bill applies to unofficial policies as well as official ones, Burlison said it wouldn’t affect any policies or resource allocation decisions that aren’t intended to provide sanctuary.
"You would have to clearly make steps and actions to not cooperate with ICE to violate the statute," he said.
But opponents who testified against the bill, several of whom spoke on behalf of faith-based groups, said the bill could have more far-reaching consequences.
Gabriele Eissner from St. Francis Community Services, an agency of Catholic Charities, emphasized a potential breakdown of trust between law enforcement and an already frightened immigrant community. She told of clients who were afraid to report burglaries and domestic violence or respond to subpoenas to testify in court.
Sen. Bill Eigel argued that those fears were caused by immigrants’ own decisions.
"Each of these individuals that you're talking about, their fear is actually coming from the fact that they are in violation of the law and are committing crimes by being in the country illegally," he said.
As Eissner and another witness pointed out, being undocumented is a civil, not criminal, violation. Eissner added that she believes law enforcement agencies should have the discretion to devote resources to local issues rather than federal immigration enforcement.
A representative of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council, Jack Seisel, explicitly highlighted religious and Missouri values in his testimony, quoting both the mandate to welcome strangers in the Book of Leviticus and Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to continue accepting refugees in Missouri.
Asked by Eigel if his message of welcome included criminals, he said yes.
"We should invite immigrants into the community, we should invite criminals into the community, we should invite people ... after they’ve served their sentence, back into the community," he said. "There's an acknowledgement of personhood that comes with creating a welcoming community that's easy to lose when talking about vicious crimes, or extreme examples."
Representatives of the NAACP and the ACLU also testified in opposition to the bill, citing concerns that ICE detainers are unconstitutional and that the bill could increase racial profiling and make Missouri a "show me your papers state."
Burlison said the bill wouldn’t require law enforcement officers to verify people’s immigration status in every interaction and said he would defer to the counts on the question of detainers’ constitutionality.
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