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OPINION

Powell: America can’t afford ‘sanctuary cities’

Scott Powell

In the wake of the San Francisco murder of Kate Steinle by serial illegal immigrant Francisco Sanchez—a story garnering national headline attention—the spotlight on immigration debate has now shifted to sanctuary policies adopted by some 275 U.S cities to protect illegal aliens from the reach of federal law enforcement.

The sanctuary movement began in the 1980s as an extension of the “underground railroad” to help illegal aliens from El Salvador and Guatemala. But it was more than that. The sanctuary movement in the U.S. not only sought to provide safe haven for the oppressed of foreign lands, but sanctuary leaders saw their movement as being in the vanguard of the Democratic Party left to spearhead change in the demographics and political policies of the United States by increasing the number of illegal immigrants.

In practice today, cities that have adopted the sanctuary status often instruct their employees to avoid notifying the federal government of the presence of illegal aliens living in their communities. Adopting sanctuary status also blurs the distinction between legal resident aliens and illegal aliens, which enables illegals to benefit from taxpayer funded government services and programs.

President Barack Obama has given sanctuary cities free rein to ignore detention orders from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through his new so-called Priority Enforcement Program, which allows local agencies to disregard ICE notifications of deportable aliens in their custody and substitute those with “requests for notification.” As a result, instead of turning illegal immigrants facing criminal charges over to ICE under its “detainer” rule, sanctuary city officials have looked the other way—even allowing dangerous criminals to walk.

The concern about sanctuary cities today should not only be focused on the problem of alien criminals, exemplified by 8,145 offenders released from custody during just the last eight months. Sanctuary cities can also provide a safe haven for very bad actors intending to wreak mass havoc on America, such as Islamist terrorists and drug cartel kingpins.

In addition to the need to plug the sanctuary city hole by enforcing existing federal law requiring local governments to cooperate with ICE, there are other gaps to be filled. An important recommendation of the 9/11 Commission was to tighten up the student visa program, after it was determined that the hijacker who flew Flight 77 into the Pentagon, Hani Hangout, had entered the U.S. on student visa. In September 2014, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, reported that since the 9/11 terror attacks, 26 student visa holders have been arrested in the U.S. on terror-related charges.

Immigration officials acknowledge great difficulty in keeping track of the large number of foreign students coming into the U.S.—now in excess of one million each year. According to the Citizenship and Immigration Services’ own figures, 58,000 students overstayed their visas in the past year, and some 6,000 of those were referred to agents for follow-up because they were deemed to be of heightened concern. Coburn commented, “They get visas and they disappear.”

Comprehensive immigration reform will have to wait for the vigor of a new administration after the 2016 election. A proposal to ban funding to sanctuary cities has just been initiated in Congress. It could be strengthened by the additional requirement to make federal immigration laws supercede local laws and sanctuary city protocols. Stalled border security legislation needs to be reactivated and additional legislation to tighten up monitoring and enforcement of the student visa programs is also needed.

But as we approach the anniversary of 9/11 less than two months away, and recognize that 2015 is a year of extreme risk, what’s most needed is heightened citizen vigilance. It is the price of freedom.

Scott Powell is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute in Seattle and managing partner at RemingtonRand LLC.