How much can your city afford?

State lawmakers are putting your city between a rock and a hard place. Either way, you’ll pay.

Senate File 481, which targets so-called “sanctuary” communities, was revived this week, earning a mostly party line vote (32-15) in the Iowa Senate. If the bill becomes law, every law enforcement agency in the state will be required to honor any and all verbal or written immigration detainer requests from the federal government. Further, every agency across the state will need to develop written policies by the start of next year to detail how their local officers will take on the added responsibilities of federal immigration law.

Agencies and local governments that do not fulfill these mandates will be subject to civil lawsuits that can be initiated by anyone, including federal government agencies and, presumably, national advocacy groups. At stake is state funding. All but “state funds for the provision of wearable body protective gear used for law enforcement purposes” can be stripped away for at least one year.

Local entities are required to go back to court in order to regain these funds, but that option is not available until a year has passed without state assistance. Failed efforts are allowed only one more try within that calendar year.

Customers watch the USA hockey team play in the Olympics while sitting at the soda fountain in the West Liberty Pharmacy Friday, Feb. 26, 2010 in West Liberty.
Customers watch the USA hockey team play in the Olympics while sitting at the soda fountain in the West Liberty Pharmacy Friday, Feb. 26, 2010 in West Liberty. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

The choice state lawmakers are giving local law enforcement is grim. They can serve as de facto federal immigration officers, increasing local jail costs by unknown levels and potentially opening themselves up to civil rights litigation, or they can forego state assistance.

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution assigns the enforcement of immigration laws to the federal government, and local law enforcement agencies have no obligation under federal law to participate. Many instead focus on local priorities — responding to emergencies, patrolling neighborhoods, preventing crime, building relationships. With only so many hours in the day, time spent enforcing federal immigration laws detracts from these core functions that local residents depend on and need.

More important, at least for already strapped local governments, the federal government does not generally reimburse costs related to the actions the Iowa bill mandates. Local taxpayers will be on the hook for added detention costs, any overtime payments to personnel and subsequent litigations.

Immigration detainers often request local law enforcement hold people for a longer period of time than what is required for that person’s offense. These are voluntary requests, made by a federal agency that wants more time to investigate possible wrongdoing, not court orders based on probable cause. Federal courts have made clear that “local law enforcement agencies are free to disregard detainers and cannot use them as a defense to a claim of unlawful detention.” In other words, if the feds make a mistake, it’s the local entity that’s liable.

No doubt votes taken on this revived bill will make for lively direct mailings in the next campaign cycle. Frankly, that’s a best-case scenario. We should all hope and pray that this is merely a political ruse.

SF 481 makes our communities less safe while forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for ineffective government.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 15, 2017. Photo credit: Brian Ray/The Gazette