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Piecemeal immigration reform bills target 'sanctuary cities'

A piecemeal approach to immigration reform is gaining bipartisan momentum in Congress.

A piecemeal approach to immigration reform is gaining bipartisan momentum in Congress, with some proposals going so far as penalizing cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration policies.

Legislation has already been introduced -- with more on its way -- to crack down on so-called "sanctuary cities" that have enacted laws designed to provide a safe haven for undocumented immigrants. 

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Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, is rolling out legislation that would strip funding for cities that defy federal immigration officials. He is calling for mandatory minimum prison sentences of five years for repeat offenders who enter the U.S. illegally. Sen. David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, has already introduced an amendment that would also block federal funding for sanctuary cities. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a similar measure as early as Thursday.

Even Democrats are open to reining in cities that openly flout the feds. California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are crafting legislation that would force local and state officials to notify immigration officials when an undocumented immigrant held by law enforcement is about to be released. 

"It is very clear to me that we have to improve cooperation between local, state and federal law enforcement," Feinstein said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue Tuesday. "Convicted felons should be removed from the country but not released onto our street."

The uproar over sanctuary cities comes after 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed allegedly by an undocumented immigrant who just months earlier was held in a San Francisco jail on a separate charge, but was later released. The suspect, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times and convicted of seven felonies, has pleaded not guilty in her murder. But it's San Francisco's status as a sanctuary city that is now under fire. City officials passed an ordinance in 2013 barring law enforcement from complying with so-called "detainers" to hold immigrants longer than necessary.

The victim's father, Jim Steinle, testified before the Senate panel on Tuesday, urging lawmakers to take action in light of his family's tragic loss. 

"Our family realizes the complexities of immigration laws, however, we feel strongly that some legislation should be discussed, enacted or changed to take these undocumented immigrant felons off our streets for good," he said in his prepared remarks. 

RELATED: Tragedy prompts scrutiny of sanctuary cities

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña faced at times fierce questioning from senators on the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, defending a new program that has gained little traction in the field. 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.

Pointing to a federal court decision finding it unconstitutional for departments to comply with ICE detainers without a warrant, Saldaña stopped short of endorsing measures to penalize cities that do not cooperate with federal officials. 

"Quite frankly, I would like, rather than a piecemeal approach to this tremendous problem, a more comprehensive approach to reform," Saldaña said. 

Critics of the proposed legislation say they fear lawmakers are rushing to judgment and holding an entire community accountable for the actions of a single person who was already on the wrong side of the law. 

"In the midst of our grief, policies should avoid criminalizing or casting collective blame on an entire community for the actions committed by one or a small number of individuals," Rev. Gabriel Salguero said in his testimony.