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Dad of San Francisco woman slain by immigrant to testify before Congress

Jim Steinle, whose daughter was shot dead at the hands of an undocumented immigrant, is expected to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The father of a 32-year-old woman shot dead in San Francisco at the hands of an undocumented immigrant with a long criminal rap sheet plans to testify before Congress on Tuesday. The hearing is likely to further inflame the debate over whether cities should do more to enforce federal immigration laws.  

Jim Steinle, whose daughter Kathryn Steinle died in his arms along a tourist-heavy San Francisco pier earlier this month, is expected to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday as lawmakers weigh whether local law enforcement authorities must be forced to cooperate with federal agents. 

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At the center of the firestorm is the question of whether Kathryn Steinle's death could have been prevented. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times earlier and convicted of seven felonies, has pleaded not guilty in her murder. He was on the lam from a 20-year-old federal drug warrant at the time of the shooting and had been released from a San Francisco County jail on a separate charge in April — even after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asked that Sanchez continued to be detained until he could be picked up for deportation. 

Donald Trump became one of the first presidential candidates to place the tragic shooting in the context of an already fiery immigration debate, shining the focus on sanctuary cities that for decades have adopted laws welcoming to undocumented immigrants. 

Sanctuary cities emerged in the mid-1980s, when refugees fleeing civil war in Central America were in need of a safe haven. In that same spirit, local officials have since enacted laws seen as welcoming toward immigrant communities, many barring local authorities from coordinating with ICE in efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. 

Local officials have seen their hands further tied since a federal court last year found it unconstitutional to comply with so-called ICE detainers without a warrant. That means undocumented immigrants can not be detained for longer than their sentences in order for federal immigration officials to have time to come pick them up. Unwilling to risk being sued over the ICE detainers, as many as 300 municipalities have rejected the policy entirely.

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Police Chief Tom Manger, president of Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, has been an outspoken critic of efforts to make local law enforcement fill in the gaps on federal immigration laws. He is also scheduled to testify before the committee Tuesday and has said that forcing local cops to crack down on immigrants wouldn't work. That's because police must build trust with immigrant communities in order for them to report crime and so law enforcement officials can do their jobs. 

"That is very problematic for local law enforcement. It will do much more harm than good," Manger told reporters on Monday. "The local law enforcement does not engage in immigration enforcement because we know that it would be counter productive to the safety of our communities."

One new program underway is designed to address those sometimes murky waters. Called the Priority Enforcement Program, the initiative asks that jails notify ICE when an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record is about to be released. In the case of Sanchez's release, ICE said that had its local field office in San Francisco been alerted, they could have made better efforts to deport him and potentially prevent the shooting.

Republicans are rushing to find ways to punish sanctuary cities by holding them by the purse strings. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has already introduced a measure that withhold funding for law enforcement and immigration in local cities if they do not comply with federal requests. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana also has legislation in the works that would withhold federal funding for cities that reject ICE detainers. 

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Even congressional Democrats are searching for ways to compel local law enforcement to strengthen coordination with federal immigration officials. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was mayor of San Francisco when the city enacted sanctuary laws in 1985, expressed outrage after finding that Sanchez was released in the spring. Feinstein and fellow California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer are working up a proposal that actively bars cities from not working with the feds in deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records. 

Pro-immigrant rights and advocacy groups have been lobbying members of Congress against such mandates, urging legislators not to rush to judgement. 

"We should not undercut decades of policies that help immigrants engage in civil life just because of the actions of one person," Angela Chan, policy director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told reporters on Monday.