By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Local and state police officers would get extra money and training to help enforce immigration laws under legislation introduced Thursday by Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.
House Republicans say the Senate's comprehensive immigration proposal, which the chamber begins debating Friday, is too generous to immigrants and too weak on securing the country's borders. Their strategy is to work on a series of individual bills.
Gowdy, of Spartanburg, is focusing on interior enforcement, which encompasses deportation policy, visa security, and new resources for the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency.
"It is more reflective of the will of the House," Gowdy said about his bill, which was introduced Thursday afternoon.
He said the House Judiciary Committee could take up the bill as early as next week. The chairman of the committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, is a co-sponsor.
The heart of Gowdy's proposal would empower state and local law enforcement officials to help identify and detain immigrants in the country illegally and refer them for prosecution or deportation.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has said federal immigration law takes precedence over state laws, Gowdy's bill would expressly allow states to investigate and enforce their own immigration laws, as long as they don't conflict with federal law and their civil and criminal penalties don't exceed federal penalties.
Gowdy said House Republicans and his South Carolina constituents are demanding an immigration law that would make it less likely any future administration could relax enforcement, and would make sure people in the country illegally face consequences.
"Whatever bill emerges from this process, it has to be enforced," Gowdy said.
Federal courts have gutted the most aggressive state-level immigration laws, and Gowdy acknowledged his proposal could be considered provocative in providing states with a financial incentive to get involved. He said he believes the Supreme Court would allow state versions of federal immigration laws as long as they complement the U.S. government's role.
One immigration advocacy group said Gowdy's bill would promote fear among immigrant communities and rekindle the conflict over strict state laws, like Arizona's.
"When police enforce immigration laws, everyone is less safe," Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said Thursday. "Current policy already has created a public safety crisis because of people now fearing the police."
Gowdy said his proposal would allow local law enforcement to inquire about someone's immigration status only while investigating another criminal offense. It would not allow racial profiling, he said.
"You can't profile under state law, local law or federal law, so it has to be in conjunction with another offense," said Gowdy, a former prosecutor. "Having a certain skin color or using another language is not probable cause."
Gowdy, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, would provide federal funding to local law enforcement to help pay for extra work and training in immigration law. His legislation would deny federal law enforcement grants to communities that have a policy against enforcing federal immigration law.
Gowdy said his bill would not amount to a round-up of people in the country illegally and is instead meant to be part of a broader approach to immigration reform, including stronger border security.
The legislation, named the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, would also expand the federal program that allows local law enforcement to enter cooperative agreements with ICE to enforce federal immigration laws. Gowdy's bill would not allow the Department of Homeland Security to refuse requests to enter such agreements.
There's no estimate yet of how much Gowdy's bill would cost. In addition to the grants to local and state law enforcement, it calls for an increase in the amount of space used to detain illegal immigrants. And it would add 2,500 ICE detention enforcement officers, 60 ICE attorneys, 5,000 deportation officers, and 700 support staff.
"For people who would question why we would spend more money in times of austerity, that's a fair and legitimate point, but at least in my judgment, public safety is the pre-eminent function of government," Gowdy said. "Yes, it spends more, but at least it's on a core function of government."
Other parts of the bill would:
- Deny changes to someone's immigration status until background and security checks are complete.
- Expand the visa security program.
- Provide body armor and weapons to ICE immigration enforcement agents and deportation officers.
Democrats say the House GOP bills promoted by Goodlatte and Gowdy are unlikely to draw Democratic support. Instead, a bipartisan coalition in the House is working on a comprehensive bill, like the one in the Senate, that would include a path to legal status for those who entered the country illegally.