A rift has opened up in the party around the question of mandatory minimums.
By Seung Min Kim
Ted Cruz and other Senate Republicans are pushing an aggressive immigration crackdown, proposing tougher penalties against foreigners who repeatedly try to enter the United States illegally.
But there’s stiff resistance — from fellow Republicans.
The GOP rift — a drama that’s playing out within the Senate Judiciary Committee — has opened up around the question of mandatory minimums, a sensitive topic that’s also central to the broader debate on Capitol Hill about reforming the nation’s criminal justice system.
And the divide could undermine Republican attempts to respond to the death of Kathryn Steinle last month on a San Francisco pier, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant from Mexico — a killing that’s ignited the issue of immigration in Congress and on the campaign trail.
On one side are Republicans such as Cruz, who’s promoted his so-called Kate’s Law on the 2016 stage, powerful Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who commands significant influence on immigration among hard-liners. They are all lobbying for legislation that would enact a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years for immigrants who try to re-enter the country illegally after being deported.
“It is legislation that ought to pass 100 to nothing,” Cruz told POLITICO in a brief interview. “Every senator, Republican and Democrat, should support keeping this nation safe from criminal illegal aliens.”
But on the opposing side are Senate Republicans such as Mike Lee of Utah — a close Cruz ally — and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who have both criticized mandatory minimums for certain crimes and are skittish about implementing such penalties for undocumented immigrants.
Lee has been a particular thorn for Republicans trying to write a bill in response to Steinle’s death, according to GOP sources. And on a committee with a narrow 11-9 majority, Republicans can’t afford to lose a single vote without picking up Democrats — an unlikely scenario on a proposal that’s imposing such tough penalties.
“That would not be something that I would be recommending,” Flake said of a five-year mandatory minimum for illegal re-entry offenses. “There may be some ways to accommodate some of those concerns, but not with mandatory minimums like that.”
Steinle’s death on the Embarcadero in San Francisco has stirred calls from the Capitol and campaign trail to get tough on illegal immigration after Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an immigrant from Mexico who had repeatedly re-entered the United States illegally after being deported, allegedly fired the shot that killed the 32-year-old woman on July 1.
In the immediate aftermath of Steinle’s death, Republicans forcefully criticized so-called sanctuary cities — localities such as San Francisco where law enforcement officials decline to carry out orders from federal immigration authorities, due to constitutional and local policing concerns — and put Democrats largely on the defensive.
And another California crime last month is likely to amplify the push in Congress to bolster immigration enforcement. Authorities say Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez, who is accused of sexually assaulting and killing a 64-year-old Air Force veteran in Santa Maria, was in the United States illegally and had a lengthy arrest record, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But immigration, an issue that’s repeatedly tripped up the GOP, is again causing complications for Republicans.
Lee is resisting efforts from fellow Republicans to include tougher mandatory minimum prison terms for immigrants who enter the country after having been deported — which would include Lopez-Sanchez, who had been sent back to his native Mexico five times, but returned to the United States after each removal.
Lee, who has aligned with liberal Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dick Durbin of Illinois to ease mandatory minimums for certain crimes, is uncomfortable with such binding punishments for immigration offenses, and he’s threatening to oppose sanctuary cities legislation that includes mandatory minimums.
“We have to have enough votes to get a bill out of committee, and we’ll have to deal with that when we deal with it,” Grassley said. “I can’t control anybody else’s vote and there’s other things other than just mandatory minimums that are important to get done so that’s what we’re gonna have to do.”
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, another Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, said he’s sympathetic to the idea of relaxing mandatory minimums for U.S. citizens for certain crimes. But for immigrants here illegally, that’s another matter.
“These are noncitizens violating our immigration laws,” Tillis said. “I think you can hold them to a different standard. Some may think it’s a conflict; I look at these as people illegally entering and re-entering the country, and that’s why I’m able to rationalize.”
Outside groups pushing for tougher immigration enforcement have lined up behind legislation from Sessions and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), which includes the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for immigrants who attempt to re-enter the United States illegally after having been deported. It also calls for withholding funding from states, cities and counties that refuse to cooperate with immigration officials.
The Judiciary Committee had been scheduled to take up a narrowly focused bill from Flake and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) that would deny federal cash for cities and states that don’t comply with so-called detainers. That’s a request that goes out from immigration officials to local jails, asking them to hold an immigrant so he or she can be deported.
But the Senate’s early adjournment last week delayed the markup until September. Meanwhile, Grassley is working on his own bill that includes the mandatory minimums and similar funding restrictions for sanctuary cities, but so far, it’s unclear whether that will come up in his committee.
And Cruz is touting his mandatory minimums bill, called Kate’s Law, on the campaign trail — even blaming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during the first GOP presidential primary debate in Cleveland last week for blocking a vote on the legislation on the Senate floor.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Senate Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, declined to say whether he would advocate for mandatory minimum sentences in an immigration bill: “I would be sympathetic to [increasing mandatory minimums] but I would want to know what the whole package looks like.”
Democrats and immigrant-rights groups are likely to fight back on proposals that toughen mandatory minimums for immigration crimes. Right now, the discretion largely falls to judges, but a prison sentence could start at two years, according to David Leopold, a veteran immigration lawyer.
But Democrats have had their own issues when it comes to sanctuary cities. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, has been under fire from advocates for proposing legislation targeting sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, where Feinstein once served as mayor.
Key Senate Democrats huddled last Wednesday on Capitol Hill to strategize about how their party should respond to the increasing congressional push against sanctuary cities, aides said. One Senate Democratic staffer familiar with the meeting said there will be a “clear isolation of any Democrat who proposes enforcement-only legislation.”
Democrats at the meeting were Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
But most of the drama lies with Republicans who control the committee and will have to deal with the diverging views on mandatory minimums to put together a bill.
“I think that’s the Kate’s Law,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said. “That guy had five convictions on his sheet, and I think it’s very important that we get that minimum sentence in there.”