The question of sanctuary cities is a topic charged with emotion as the controversy has come to a head with the U.S. Justice Department demanding the cooperation of local law enforcement agencies in enforcing federal immigration laws. Sanctuary cities are those local jurisdictions that have taken a formal stand in refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities under any circumstances.
They are constitutionally correct in that the federal government cannot compel them to enforce federal laws but the federal government does have the discretion to withhold federal funds, particularly in the form of law enforcement-related grants, to these self-proclaimed “sanctuaries.”
The argument, from a federal perspective, is not only about enforcing immigration laws but public safety by deporting those with violent histories who are illegally in the United States. No doubt, local law enforcement resources are limited and they should not be expected to do the job of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in ascertaining the immigration status of its residents but when it comes to public safety, they should do what they legally can do to cooperate with ICE.
However, the debate over sanctuary cities is misplaced and ignores the broader question of the need to fix our broken immigration system. Sanctuary cities are only a symptom of a much broader problem brought about by current immigration policies.
No doubt, we need to have secure borders and have rational immigration laws that are uniformly and strictly enforced. I believe that there should be zero tolerance for illegal immigration but I also know that immigration laws have either been completely ignored or selectively enforced for decades. For example, in November 2016, PEW Research published a study that estimated that one out of twenty workers, or 140,000, in the State of Colorado are here illegally.
The magnet for illegal immigration is the ability to find work in the United States. The best way to stop illegal immigration is less about building a wall than simply by mandating an E-Verify system on all employers, with stiff penalties for those who violate the law, to remove the incentive to come to the United States illegally to find work.
Today, only businesses with federal contracts are required to verify the legal status of their workers. Immigration reform must include an effective and efficient federally-mandated E-Verify system for all employers.
In fact, given that illegal crossings on our southern border have dropped to record low numbers, the majority of illegal immigration is now from visa overstays. This is when someone has a visa to come to the United States temporarily (i.e. a tourist visa) but never leaves.
There are no tracking and enforcement mechanisms in place when a visa holder is in the country beyond the expiration of their visa. Reforming our immigration system must include tracking visa overstays to make sure that they leave the country when their visas expire.
However, to get to a system of “zero tolerance” for illegal immigration will require a recognition that we have had immigrants who have lived illegally in the United States for most of their adult lives and that most have not violated laws other than immigration-related ones.
I believe that before we move to a system that strictly enforces the immigration changes that we agree to, we must be realistic in recognizing the need for a transitional period for those who have been residing in the United States illegally and give them a limited window of opportunity to come out of the shadows, undergo a criminal background check, pay a fine for having violated our immigration laws, and then be allowed to remain in the United States with a legal status that removes the fear of deportation and allows them to freely live and work in this country.
Unlike the adults who came illegally, who knowingly broke U.S immigration laws, there are many young people living in the United States who were taken to this country, illegally, when they were children.
They grew up here, went to school here, and often know of no other country besides the United States. They should also be allowed to remain in the United States but have a clear path to citizenship based on military service, work history, or through their education.
Sanctuary cites are only a symptom of a greater problem that requires fixing our broken immigration system and I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, to get the job done.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman represents Aurora and the 6th Congressional District.