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. Passengers line up for a bullet train at a platform in Tokyo Station.
    Transportation

    The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

    The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

  2. A woman rides her bike on a snowy day in Amsterdam.
    Transportation

    5 Reasons Why Amsterdam Works So Well for Bikes

    Skip or short-change any one of them and your city of bikes won’t work as well.

  3. A detail from a 1942 British Mandate map of Haifa, now a city in Israel.
    Maps

    Mapping Palestine Before Israel

    A new open-source project uses British historical maps to reveal what Palestine looked like before 1948.

  4. The 17 architects and designers in the first cohort of Public Practice have been charged with boosting the influence of good planning on London.
    Solutions

    London’s Big Push for Better Design

    The city's Public Practice program is embedding experienced architects and planners around the area in an effort to speed housing construction and get more inclusive public spaces.

  5. How To

    Want Solar Panels on Your Roof? Here's What You Need to Know

    A handy reference for navigating an emerging industry.