Reported By Lydia Wheeler – 05/31/17 06:00 AM EDT
Republicans are going on the offensive with “Kate’s Law,” seeking to fulfill one of President Trump’s most high-profile promises while putting Democrats on defense over illegal immigration. During the presidential campaign, Trump highlighted the murder of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle, who was shot by a Mexican immigrant who had unlawfully re-entered the country after being convicted of a separate crime and deported.
Now, Republicans are working on legislation to impose a mandatory five-year minimum prison sentence for immigrants who have twice been charged with illegally re-entering the country or have prior aggravated felony convictions.
Language for Kate’s Law is tucked into a border security bill that Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) are working on, according to a draft copy reviewed by The Hill.
The bill, which Senate Democrats successfully blocked in 2015 and 2016, is a priority for Trump.A May 2 tweet from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach shows him and White House strategist Stephen Bannon standing in front of a whiteboard with Bannon’s to-do list. The words “pass ‘Kate’s law’” are visible under the header “Pledges on Immigration.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the Republican proposal.
In addition to Kate’s Law, the larger border security bill includes provisions to add 10,000 detention beds each year for the next four years, increase the number of border patrol agents from 21,000 to 26,370 and require U.S. attorneys to prosecute people who are caught within 100 miles of crossing the southern border.
Greg Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Cornyn and McCaul’s bill goes “hand in hand” with Trump’s overall mass deportation plan.
“It’s a one-size-fits-all justice that is going to produce sentences that don’t fit the person’s circumstances or facts of life,” Chen said. “People who have lived here a long time may go to visit family in Mexico and then get picked up on the way back in.”
While Republicans appear to be pushing the measure in the name of national security, immigration advocates claim Democrats are on strong footing to once again oppose the proposal. Philip Wolgin, managing director for the immigration policy team at the liberal Center for American Progress, claims Trump’s tougher stance on immigration enforcement has actually made communities more dangerous because fewer immigrants are willing to report rape, sexual assault and crimes to police.
“It’s laughable you could claim this is about national security or community safety,” he said.
A March McClatchy-Marist survey found that 80 percent of Americans favor providing a way for undocumented immigrants to gain legal U.S. citizenship if they meet certain criteria.
The poll found that opinion to be bipartisan, with 69 percent of Republicans saying they would favor such a move if undocumented immigrants learn English, pay fines and have jobs that pay taxes.
In a statement to The Hill, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who chairs the Immigration Taskforce of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Cornyn has forged a partnership with GOP opponents of legal immigration to help thwart immigration reforms that would improve border security and increase overall legality and accountability.
“I’m sure whatever he and Rep. McCaul come up with will be popular with the White House and Trump’s base, but the problem they face is that American voters think we need more practical solutions than walls and round-ups,” he said.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that supports Kate’s Law, said there has to be more of a deterrent for people who re-enter the country illegally.
“If people understand [that] if they get caught they might go to prison, then they might not try to come back,” he said. “We might not have as many people going to prison because the threat of getting caught is enough to stop them from coming in the first place.”
Mehlman said illegal border crossings are already down under Trump, noting that the first brick of his much-touted proposed border wall has yet to be laid.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly reported in February that unauthorized border crossings were down 40 percent following Trump’s first full month in office.
“Illegal aliens are rational people, and they come when they don’t think we are enforcing our laws,” Mehlman said. “It’s our policies that have been irrational up until fairly recently.”
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the liberal America’s Voice, wonders if Cornyn and McCaul included Kate’s Law to get groups supportive of reduced immigration to back their border bill.
“The problem is, the more radical they make their bill, the less likely it is to pass,” she said in a statement to The Hill. “Our immigration laws are already harsh and extreme. They already bend toward deportation over family unification.”
At some point, Tramonte said, reasonable minds in the Senate will be forced to ask a key question: Do we really need more punishing immigration laws?
“If Cornyn and McCaul wanted to work on real solutions, they would work on reform that includes a path to citizenship for aspiring Americans,” she said. “That’s the type of change in law that would actually move this country forward.”