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“Keep our familia together” reads the sign of one young protester at the Day Without Latinos and Immigrants in February 2016 in Madison. That event protested a bill that would ban sanctuary cities. There was a public hearing for a similar bill at the Capitol on Thursday. 

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Much of the debate at the Capitol Thursday over a Wisconsin bill that would effectively ban "sanctuary cities" centered on one question: Do sanctuary cities help or hinder public safety?

Proponents repeatedly said the bill would solely target criminals harbored by sanctuary cities and would therefore protect Wisconsinites from violent crime. Opponents, including many Latinos from across the state, weren’t convinced, saying the bill would give law enforcement “sweeping power” to profile all undocumented immigrants, and would deter them from reporting crimes.

“These are criminals,” said Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, who introduced the bill. “I happen to think it’s wrong to protect illegal aliens who have brought harm to our friends, our neighbors, our families, who have killed, who have raped, who have robbed, who are drug dealers ... I don’t want those people protected. That’s why the sanctuary city bill says you have to follow the law.”

Senate Bill 275 would ban sanctuary cities, commonly understood to be municipalities where local law enforcement officials don’t inquire about residents’ immigration status.

The bill outlaws ordinances and policies that prohibit inquiring about immigration status or refusing to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. If a city, village or town doesn’t comply, the state Department of Revenue can withhold state aid the next year, between $500 to $5,000 for each day of noncompliance, depending on the population.

Nass argued that sanctuary cities threaten public safety, are magnets for illegal immigration, conflict with federal law and present a burden to taxpayers.

Nass cited a statistic from the Federation for American Immigration Reform that the cost of undocumented immigrants to taxpayers for education, health care, criminal justice and other general services at $113 billion every year.

He and other proponents gave several examples of undocumented immigrants committing violent crimes. Nass told the story of a Californian woman who was shot and killed in 2015 by an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times. He had been detained on drug charges a few months before the shooting, but authorities released him without notifying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in compliance with the city’s sanctuary city policy.

“Sadly, this violent attack and tragedy could have been prevented if only San Francisco had cooperated with federal immigration officials,” Nass said.

“I would think that every person is here, should be supportive of getting rid of these bad guys, no matter where they’re from,” Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said.

Nass also said the bill would “not make local law enforcement officers act as immigration enforcement agents and it does not require local law enforcement to go out looking for people who entered the United States.” He said it merely forces compliance with federal immigration authorities’ request that local police hold suspected undocumented immigrants accused of a crime in jail for up to 48 hours.

As the speakers presented their arguments, a large crowd outside the hearing room listened in. At least 200 opponents rode buses to Madison from Milwaukee, Waukesha, Manitowoc and Green Bay provided by Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization.

"This bill is racist, it's unconstitutional, it's irresponsible and its immoral," said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces.

She and other opponents argued the bill would target Latinos, “violate the principles of federalism” and have a “chilling effect” on relationships between immigrant communities and law enforcement, which could act as a deterrent for reporting crimes.

Jose Perez, an alder from Milwaukee, said the bill would “actively prevent some of our most vulnerable populations, including victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, from reporting crime, including crimes committed against our children.”

In an impassioned testimony, Neumann-Ortiz disputed that the bill would only affect those who had committed crimes, and accused Nass of lying for stating otherwise. She said the bill would open the door for law enforcement to inquire about immigration status "whenever they feel like it."

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At a “people’s hearing” in late September, also organized by Voces, many spoke about their experiences living in Wisconsin as undocumented immigrants, using an economic argument that the bill would be devastating to state’s dairy industry, they said.

Nick Levendofsky, a government relations associate with the Wisconsin Farmers Union, appeared at the people’s hearing and again at Thursday’s hearing to speak against the bill. He pointed to the need for immigrant labor in the dairy industry, and said the bill would create a profiling problem.

“What is deemed as criminal, what is deemed as not criminal? Who’s bad? Who’s good?” he said.

“This bill does not affect milking cows,” Nass said, unless those dairy workers are criminals.

Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Sommers, said he had a “philosophical problem,” with the bill, arguing it takes power away from local government. He asked why anyone should run for local government if “Madison is going to make all the decisions.”

Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, asked who would enforce the bill, especially in rural areas where law enforcement resources can be strapped. Nass said implementation wouldn’t require an additional workload, but rather ensures that law enforcement communicates with ICE.

A similar bill was passed by the state Assembly last year, but after a crowd of thousands protested at the Capitol, the Senate never took up the measure.

The bill is similar to legislation recently passed in Texas, which is now facing a challenge in court. Wirch said lawmakers should “wait and see” what happens to that bill, as he said the state had already wasted enough money on lawsuits, citing the recent Supreme Court gerrymandering case

“Let Texas pay for it and then we’ll learn from them,” he said.