A lone sign is all that is left of the
A lone sign is all that is left of the "Dia sin Latinos" protest on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol Thursday, Feb. 18. | Jacob Bielanski

Wisconsin immigration bill sparks protest

As many as 14,000 protesters gathered at the Wisconsin State Capitol Thursday night in opposition to a bill passed two days earlier by the state Assembly that outlaws so-called "sanctuary cities."

The bill continues a larger movement by states to address immigration reform. The movement gained momentum last year after a July shooting in San Francisco. In that case, undocumented immigrant Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez is charged with shooting a woman to death as she walked with her father. Lopez-Sanchez was deported five times to his native Mexico and was previously convicted of seven felonies.

Proponents of Wisconsin’s and similar laws point to San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city as a key factor in the case. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, Madison, Wisconsin is also a sanctuary city.

The Wisconsin law specifically targets “sanctuary” cities within the state, defined as those cities with local policies that prohibit local officials from inquiring about immigration status in the course of interacting with the public. The new law would impose state revenue sharing penalties of between $500 and $5,000 a day for any city found to have policies in violation of the law.

According to police estimates, roughly 14,000 protesters marched on the capital for “Dia sin Latinos” or “Day without Latinos.”

“Congress was not able to pass legislation,” Jessica Vaughan, spokesperson for the Center for Immigration Studies, told AMI Newswire. “But the sanctuaries aren’t going to fix themselves, so it is appropriate, in my opinion, for a state legislature to take this kind of step.”

Vaughan referred to legislation introduced shortly after the Lopez-Sanchez shooting by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California) that passed the U.S. House, but has not been scheduled for a vote by the Senate. President Obama has threatened to veto it if it passes. The law would deny federal law enforcement funding to local law enforcement whose policy keeps immigration status information from being reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Shortly before the shooting, Lopez Sanchez was released by local law enforcement, despite a request from  ICE officers that he be detained longer in consideration of a sixth deportation.

Opponents of such a measure, however, worry that the rules would prevent undocumented immigrants from coming forth as witnesses for crimes, or  cooperating with local authorities. Many undocumented immigrants, receive that status as a result of overstaying visas and not necessarily because they illegally entered the U.S., according to Angela Garcia, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

“We want undocumented immigrants to feel comfortable reporting crimes, testifying in court and having that relationship with police,” she told AMI Newswire “Like it or not, they’re members of our communities with long histories of residency within communities, so I worried about making them afraid to speak up when they are victim of crime or witness a crime does not make our communities safer.”

García, whose research focuses on the impact of state and local immigration laws, said she’s not necessarily opposed to legislation increasing enforcement or prosecution and deportation of undocumented immigrants, but that the current efforts do a poor job of differentiating between different types of crimes, calling the effort a “piecemeal” approach. She said that comprehensive, nationwide immigration reform would likely be the better solution.

“The problem with a lot of these policies (targeting sanctuary cities) … is that they’re based on these kind of clear lines between a felony and a misdemeanor,” García told AMI Newswire. “They don’t accommodate the everyday person who just got caught up in the law.”

Many groups further point to the relatively low rate of lawbreaking among immigrants when compared to native-born people.

Vaughan, however, disputes these numbers, saying she and a colleague were unable to verify such numbers. “To me, that belief is completely irrelevant to this discussion,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how many illegal immigrants commit the crimes, but what we do with the ones who are.”  

Glenn Spencer, who founded American Border Patrol in 2002 in Arizona, echoes those sentiments, adding that the issue has been long-ignored. Both he and Garcia say the issue has come closer to the forefront after high-profile remarks by current Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

“Trump opened up Pandora’s box by talking about it,” Spencer told AMI Newswire. “And he may very well become president because of it.”

Similar to the congressional act, the Wisconsin bill is awaiting a vote by the state Senate before it becomes law.
Correction: Feb. 22, 2016; TIME TK
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Angela Garcia’s position on immigration enforcement. The University of Chicago academic said she opposes tougher laws against illegal immigrants who have not committed serious crimes; she did not say she could support stricter laws across the board.