Controversial immigration bill getting significant overhaul ahead of Monday hearing

Megan Messerly
Megan Messerly

The immigration bill that Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela presents to the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday afternoon is going to look very different from the one she first proposed a month ago, which drew both accolades from the immigrant community and progressive activists as well as a healthy dose of opposition and concern from Republicans and law enforcement.

After meeting with various parties over the last several weeks, Cancela is requesting an amendment to her bill, SB223, which will essentially scrap the text of the measure, which proposes barring state and local law enforcement from participating in federal immigration enforcement without a warrant. Instead, the amended bill language will more narrowly prohibit state and local law enforcement from asking about an individual’s immigration status at the point of contact, Cancela told The Nevada Independent Tuesday.

“If they’re responding to a domestic abuse claim at a home, they’re not going to ask that victim whether or not they’re a citizen,” Cancela said. “It also means that if someone gets pulled over for a broken tail light, whether or not they’re a citizen will not be part of the discussion. That is the intent of the amendment.”

Cancela said she still believes in the ideas in the original bill and remains a co-signer on Democratic Assemblyman Chris Brook’s AB357, which is identical in text to her current bill. However, she said that she believes “there is a way to create something that is more narrowly focused that still allows people to both feel confident in law enforcement and also codifies into law what law enforcement has said they’re not doing today.”

For instance, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department already doesn’t ask for someone’s immigration status at the point of contact. However, the department has opted into a so-called 287(g) agreement, which means they do cooperate with federal immigration authorities in jails.

Under the original bill text, Metro would not have been able to continue cooperating with federal officials in its jails. The new bill text would instead seek to codify Metro’s practice of not asking for immigration status at the point of contact and would allow their 287(g) agreement to stand.

But Metro and and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office remain opposed to the amended language. Metro lobbyist Chuck Callaway expressed a specific concern that putting anything in statute seen as limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities could jeopardize the federal funding the department receives.  Callaway also said there is an overall philosophical concern over restricting the sheriff’s ability to allocate resources and make judgment calls on a minute-by-minute basis.

Callaway said that “of all the senators in the building” Cancela has been the one “the most willing to work with us,” adding that she’s been “great” throughout the process and come a long way in trying to address law enforcement’s concerns, but they’re still at an impasse.

“I think we've come to the point where we agree to disagree,” Callaway said. “She's come as far as she can go and we appreciate that, but still we're just at that point where we can't support.”

Eric Spratley, lobbyist for the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, echoed Callaway’s concerns, saying that though the office has a policy against asking for immigration status at the point of contact, they object to the policy being codified in statute. He also noted that the bill has already earned the reputation as a “sanctuary city bill,” which makes law enforcement supporting it problematic.

An executive order released by President Donald Trump in January states that “jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable Federal law do not receive Federal funds, except as mandated by law.” However, experts have been skeptical that Trump could actually eliminate all funding from jurisdictions the administration considers “sanctuary” cities or counties, those which decline federal requests to hold arrestees in jail due to their immigration status.

But it’s precisely because of the president’s executive order — coupled with the state’s sizable immigrant population — that Cancela feels so strongly about passing some sort of immigration legislation this session, both to ensure law enforcement isn’t later compelled by the federal government to participate in something it doesn’t want to be a part of and to assure the immigrant community that they don’t need to be afraid of the police.

“I feel very strongly about making sure that I don’t finish this session without doing my best to get a piece of immigrant-protection legislation passed,” Cancela said.

Asked earlier this month what he thought about Cancela’s bill, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval said the bill was a “work in progress” without elaborating further. However, Republican legislative leaders have taken much firmer public stances against the bill.

Republican Senate leader Michael Roberson called the legislation the “most recklessly irresponsible piece of legislation” he’s witnessed during his time at the Legislature in a statement after the bill was introduced, while Republican Assembly leader Paul Anderson said that he didn’t think that “tying the hands of law enforcement is a smart way to keep Nevadans safe."

Cancela said she hasn’t yet talked to Republicans or the governor about the amendment, but that she hoped that it would alleviate some of their concerns raised both in the press and on social media. However, Anderson reiterated his earlier sentiments late Tuesday, saying that the amendment sounded like it was still “binding the hands of law enforcement.”

“It doesn’t make sense to put that stuff in statute,” Anderson said. “These are things that need to be fluid based on what’s going on in society, based on what’s going on, whether it’s in Nevada or the nation. The last thing we want to do is put something in statute that’s stuck in there for years on end without giving them the ability to be nimble.”

Still, Cancela says she doesn’t want immigration to be a partisan issue.

“The truth is there are real problems with our immigration law that exist at the federal level that have to get addressed,” Cancela said. “And the solution is not building a wall, it’s not deporting 11 million people, it’s looking at where there are real craftable solutions.”

The bill is slated to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Cancela said.

Updated 3-22-17 at 12:21 p.m. to include additional comments from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Washoe County Sheriff's Office.


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