REUTERS

The SAFE Act could lead to overcrowded prisons and misplaced law enforcement priorities.

The first piece of immigration legislation to make it out of Congressional committee last year was the SAFE Act, passed by the House Judiciary Committee in June 2013. A few bills followed in July, before the entire reform process grounded to a halt. But with things starting back up again, it's worth revisiting the SAFE Act, and the incredible powers it would bestow on state and local law enforcement. 

The SAFE Act, which passed the House Judiciary Committee on a party line vote, would make it a crime to be in the U.S. illegally (currently it's an "administrative violation"). That means undocumented immigrants would not just be deported, they'd serve a jail sentence before deportation. It's an expensive proposition: The Congressional Budget Office estimates the SAFE Act would cost more than $22 billion between 2014 and 2018. The act also encourages states and cities to pass their own restrictive immigration laws, and it tasks local cops with enforcing existing federal law. The act would also encourage police departments to divert resources from policing violent and property crimes in favor of busting up immigrant communities. 

Thomas Manger, chief of police for Montgomery County, Maryland, testified two months ago that the SAFE Act would discourage illegal immigrants who were the victims of violent crime from contacting police. Manger offered the example of an immigrant woman who was badly beaten by her ex-boyfriend, and initially refused to report him for fear of being deported herself. Under the SAFE Act, both the woman and her ex would be deported, possibly after jail time. 

Last week, another law enforcement leader came forward with criticism of the SAFE Act. Richard S. Biehl, chief of police for the Dayton (Ohio) Police Department, wrote an op-ed for The Hill arguing that the SAFE Act is incompatible with good policing. 

"Like other cities, the Dayton Police Department works hard to build trust with our community members so that they are not afraid to work with us if they are witnesses to or victims of crime," Biehl writes. He continues:

Our officers do not check the immigration status of witnesses and victims. Nor do we ask about legal status during minor traffic stops. These policies allow us to focus our limited resources on our primary mission — crime solving and community safety.

Numerous local law enforcement officials across the country agree that they do not have the time, resources or expertise to engage in immigration enforcement, ... Any law that would require us to do so would wrongly delegate to us an unreasonable task and cause us to compromise our core mission of ensuring public safety.

So why did Congressional Republicans propose the SAFE Act in the first place?

In part, it's because some legislators still think the best way to discourage certain behaviors is to jack the cost of engaging in that behavior through the roof. Deportation is already a pretty ugly practice—it breaks up families, putting kids in stateside foster care and their parents on the other side of a border. Yet some people look at our current immigration laws, and think, "let's up the stakes."

Legislators basically said the same thing about drugs in the 1980s. That decision led to overcrowded prisons, generational poverty, massive voter disenfranchisement, and misplaced law enforcement priorities. Decades later, conservatives—including Texas Governor Rick Perry—are breaking up with the drug war. That's why it's so odd to see Congressional Republicans push something that would duplicate its worst effects. 

Top image: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a map comparing the sizes of several cities
    Maps

    The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

    From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

  2. a photo of a full parking lot with a double rainbow over it
    Transportation

    Parking Reform Will Save the City

    Cities that require builders to provide off-street parking trigger more traffic, sprawl, and housing unaffordability. But we can break the vicious cycle.   

  3. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  4. People standing in line with empty water jugs.
    Environment

    Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ Water Crisis, One Year Later

    In spring 2018, news of the water crisis in South Africa ricocheted around the world—then the story disappeared. So what happened?

  5. A woman looks straight at camera with others people and trees in background.
    Equity

    Why Pittsburgh Is the Worst City for Black Women, in 6 Charts

    Pittsburgh is the worst place for black women to live in for just about every indicator of livability, says the city’s Gender Equity Commission.

×