DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa has jumped into the national debate over immigration with an expansive enforcement bill that would require local governments to comply with federal immigration agents or risk losing state funds.
The measure, scheduled for at least one vote this week in the Republican-controlled Legislature, would force law enforcement to hold a jailed person for possible deportation if requested by federal agents. The proposal has been framed as a ban on so-called sanctuary cities, a catch-all label for jurisdictions that limit local involvement in federal immigration enforcement.
Iowa has no sanctuary cities, though some communities have related guidelines.
Legal experts say holding people longer than normal could be unconstitutional, and the wide scope of the bill raises questions about local control.
“It’s without question that you’re going to get a legal challenge,” said Anna Law, a political science professor at City University of New York, Brooklyn College, who specializes in U.S. immigration and the Constitution.
That’s in part because while the federal government has authority to make and enforce federal immigration law, local governments also have some legal power to determine rights and privileges for immigrants once those individuals are in their jurisdictions.
The bill would prohibit policies that don’t allow local authorities to:
— Question the immigration status of people under lawful detention or arrest.
— Assist federal immigration agents with arrests.
— Use any Iowa jail as part of federal agents’ work.
Local governments that intentionally violate provisions would be denied state funding.
The GOP-majority Senate passed the measure last session, and the two-year legislative calendar means it just needs votes in the Republican-led House if there are no changes. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has indicated support.
A House panel of two Republicans and one Democrat is scheduled Tuesday to review the legislation.
Sen. Julian Garrett, an Indianola Republican who wrote the bill, said the focus is on individuals in the country illegally who are accused of crimes. He argues the measure isn’t expansive.
“If you haven’t committed a crime, if you’re not getting arrested, this bill has no impact on you at all,” he said.
The bill describes lawful detention as someone suspected of a public offense, which excludes such minor offenses as moving traffic violations.
Madeline Cano, an organizer for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a left-leaning group that lobbies on social and environmental policies, called that definition vague and said other provisions give broad power to federal immigration agents.
“It leads to a lot of interpretation,” she said. “That to me is very dangerous.”
The legislation comes amid a congressional debate over immigration policy that in part led to a shutdown of the federal government over the fate of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought to the county illegally as children. President Donald Trump last week unveiled a plan that included a path to citizenship for such immigrants but also sought $25 billion for a wall along the border with Mexico and other steps, and called for sharp reductions in legal immigration.
Roughly 40,000 people in Iowa were in the country illegally in 2014, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Alexa Rodriguez, a community organizer in the Des Moines area, said the bill would make immigrants who are fearful of deportation less inclined to report crimes, which could hinder police investigations.
“If people are scared to come forward because they’re scared of local police, that puts all of us in danger,” she said.
The Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association and a host of groups representing local governments are registered against the legislation. The Iowa Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group against illegal immigration, is the only organization registered in support.
Rep. Steven Holt, a Denison Republican who will be on Tuesday’s panel, noted the legislation states a person reporting a crime, including a victim, would be exempt from immigration enforcement. He said the argument masks a bigger problem.
“As long as people are not here legally, and this system isn’t fixed, there’s going to be people who are always living in fear that they’re going to get deported,” he said. “This law, on the books or not, is not going to change that.”
Holt said he plans to add language to the bill that clearly ensures authorities don’t hold a jailed person beyond the period of time he or she would otherwise be detained. It’s unclear whether such a change to the bill, which also includes a section prohibiting discrimination, would protect the state from civil lawsuits.
A handful of states have enacted legislation in recent years to ban sanctuary cities, though with a range of enforcement provisions. A 2017 Texas law threatened jail time for officials who don’t follow federal immigration directives. The law is not fully in effect because of a lawsuit that could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Courts are also reviewing a Trump executive order to withhold money from sanctuary cities.
Rony Molina, a 17-year-old high school senior in Des Moines whose parents immigrated to the country, said his community is on high alert. He and others are responding by pushing for legislation and policies that help immigrants with their legal rights. Still, Molina worries the enforcement bill is already doing harm.
“Just the talk about the bill passing … it encourages fear,” he said.