No Sanctuary for Criminals Act: An Anti-Federalist “Immigration” Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote this week on the “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act” (H.R. 3003). The bill’s primary purpose is to threaten and punish cities and states that fail to do the bidding of federal immigration agents. It would also make it more difficult to hold state and local officers accountable for violations of the Constitution committed pursuant to federal commands.  

H.R. 3003 would impose mandates on states

The heart of the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act would prohibit any policies that restrict state or local law enforcement officials from “assisting or cooperating with Federal law enforcement entities, officials, or other personnel regarding the enforcement of” immigration laws (pp. 2-3). It would also ban restrictions on collecting people’s immigration status, reporting them to the federal government, or complying with requests for that information from the federal government.

These provisions purport to remove the authority of state or local police departments or state or local legislatures to determine how their law enforcement resources are used. This violates a basic principle of federalism, which many conservatives have long championed, that the federal government should leave states to experiment with their own policies. I wonder whether Republican members of Congress would still support this legislation if they could imagine Democrats applying this same principle to federal gun laws in the future.

H.R. 3003 would attempt to compel compliance with federal grants

Supreme Court precedent suggests that Congress cannot actually enforce such a ban on state or local policies. Perhaps with this in mind, the bill attempts to enforce “compliance” with its possibly unconstitutional mandates by imposing monetary penalties. It would strip any non-compliant state or locality of any “grant administered by the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security that is substantially related to law enforcement, terrorism, national security, immigration, or naturalization” (pp. 3-4).

The Supreme Court has held that there are limits to this type of federal coercion of states, but it’s still unclear where exactly those limits are. My colleague Trevor Burrus has written about the constitutional issues here with regard to a similar proposal a few years ago. As he wrote then:

The absolute monetary size of the grant certainly has something to do with coercion, but other factors can be taken into account… Therefore, it is legitimate to look not just to the size of the grants, but to the type of grants used to induce states into not passing [“sanctuary” laws]. Highway funding is one thing, but national security, law enforcement, and FEMA grants are entirely different.

Regardless of its constitutionality, however, the important issue here is that this type of heavy-handed approach to federal-state relations is at odds with federalist principles and many years of conservative and Republican rhetoric. Federalism is an important safeguard for liberty, and in its exuberance to obtain a certain policy result, Congress should not lose sight of this principle.

H.R. 3003 would deny state sovereignty

The legislation, however, would go even further. It would allow a private right of action against states by any individual or immediate family member of an individual who is a victim of a felony committed by an immigrant released from state or local custody against the wishes of the federal government (pp. 10-11). This could also run afoul of the Constitution because the Supreme Court has held that the federal government cannot abrogate state sovereign immunity except in certain very limited circumstances, such as to protect rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Regardless of the constitutionality, this provision is another incredible overreach, attempting to threaten states into following the bidding of the federal government on immigration. While the bill requires that the victims bring the claim within 10 years of the offense, there is no restriction at all on how long after the release of the person they may bring the claim. Indeed, nothing in the bill prevents a state from being subject to a lawsuit by a victim of a person released in 2017 who commits a crime in 2057.

Most importantly, states simply should not be liable for crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants that they release if they have no reason to believe that they are a threat. Each level of government only has so many resources. Requiring them to use those resources in ways that the federal government wants is wrong. If Congress bullies states or localities into spending their limited resources on locking up nonviolent immigrants and a violent felon gets away or must be released as a result, should the federal government be held liable for the consequences?

H.R. 3003 would prevent states from obtaining justice for crime victims and limit accountability for state constitutional violations

Finally, there is a provision that bans the federal government from transferring a person for prosecution to a state or locality deemed in violation of the mandates under the law (pp. 4-5). I don’t have a problem with not transferring every immigrant prisoner—I supported exercising such discretion in a prior post in certain cases—but an outright prohibition is wrong. It automatically denies these states or localities the ability to obtain justice for victims of crimes in their jurisdiction without any type of individualized evaluation. Even if you think that non-compliant states or localities should be punished, such an automatic denial of justice for victims is wrong. Should a murderer escape justice simply because the state refuses to hold non-felon unauthorized immigrants for the federal authorities?

The bill would also prohibit lawsuits against state and local officials who violate individuals’ constitutional rights by holding them at the request of the federal government. The bill would deem the officials to have acted on behalf of the United States and require all lawsuits to name the United States as the defendant (pp. 8-9). In several cases, courts have found that holding immigrants pursuant to a detainer can violate their constitutional rights. In one case, a U.S. citizen brought a case against a county in Pennsylvania for detaining him wrongfully, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that localities had no obligation to hold a person on behalf of the federal government and that they could be found liable. The county settled for $95,000. There are several other cases of this kind.

This limitation on liability appears intended to obstruct local and state accountability for constitutional violations. How is that possibly a “conservative” idea?

The bill would exacerbate this problem by simultaneously allowing states a much longer period of detention without charges. The current Trump administration detainer form specifies that a person cannot be held for more than 48 hours. H.R. 3003 would allow states and localities to maintain custody in some circumstances for twice as long (p. 8).