Why Did Arizona Dems Sinema, O'Halleran Side With Trump on Anti-Immigrant 'Kate's Law'?

Why Did Arizona Dems Sinema, O'Halleran Side With Trump on Anti-Immigrant 'Kate's Law'?
Photo at left courtesy of Kyrsten Sinema; right, Miriam Wasser
Laws named after dead white women are almost invariably terrible ideas.

For one thing, they're a classic example of "Missing White Woman Syndrome," in which the disappearances of conventionally attractive white women get extensive, in-depth media coverage at the same time that similar stories involving black and Latino girls and women are virtually ignored.

They also tend to be an extremely unproductive and largely ineffective way of making public policy, since they're based solely on appeals to people's emotions and not, you know, actual facts. 

Kate's Law, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week with support from a number of Democrats, including Kyrsten Sinema and Tom O'Halleran, checks both these boxes.

The bill is named for 32-year-old Kate Steinle, who was murdered in 2015 by an undocumented immigrant who'd been deported five times. It would increase the penalties for re-entering the country illegally. People who have been deported more than three times would be sentenced for up to 10 years in prison; those with a criminal record, including nonviolent drug charges, could get up to 20 years. 

Missing White Woman Syndrome is clearly a factor here: So far, the death of Nabra Hassanen, a black Muslim teenager who was recently killed by an undocumented immigrant in Virginia, doesn't appear to have inspired a comparable "Nabra's Law." It did inspire someone to set her memorial on fire.

And as is often the case with laws named for murdered blond women, Kate's Law is deeply illogical from a policy standpoint.

The bill was framed by Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a crime-prevention measure, completely ignoring the fact that undocumented immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. And it's debatable whether the threat of incarceration will actually deter people who have been deported in the past from crossing the border.

More importantly, numerous migrant rights activists have decried the bill as inhumane, considering that repeat border-crossers are often fleeing violence back home or trying to reunite with their families in the United States. Others simply want a better life and more economic opportunities.

In an addition to being a horrible response to a growing humanitarian crisis, throwing repeat border-crossers in jail also promises to be extremely expensive for taxpayers. When a similar bill was proposed last year, the ACLU calculated that it would cost $3 billion to implement over the course of a decade, and require the construction of nine new federal prisons.

Despite all that, 24 Democrats voted in favor of the bill, including Sinema and O'Halleran. (So did every Arizona Republican, with the exception of Representative Paul Gosar, who abstained from voting.)

In an emailed statement sent to Phoenix New Times, Sinema wrote that she voted for Kate's Law "to keep convicted and dangerous felons off our streets."

O'Halleran, likewise, wrote, "It is critical that we do all we can to do all we can to keep our communities safe. Kate’s Law reinforces existing law and gives our justice system the necessary leeway to punish repeat offenders who pose a threat to public safety."

Both also pointed out that they also support comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to legal citizenship.

As previously noted, the idea that undocumented immigrants are inherently predisposed to commit violent crimes and therefore pose a threat to public safety is completely bogus, and has been debunked repeatedly. There's also considerable evidence that suggests that Kate Steinle's death — an undeniably tragic event that never should have occurred — wouldn't have been prevented by the law named after her.

For one thing, it doesn't address how Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, Steinle's killer, was able to get his hands on a gun in the first place. After all, in addition to being present in the country illegally, Lopez-Sanchez had been convicted of seven felonies (albeit nonviolent ones). Theoretically, he shouldn't have just been able to walk into a store and buy one.

In the days that followed Steinle's shooting, law enforcement officials traced the gun that Lopez-Sanchez had used and found out that it had been stolen from a Bureau of Land Management ranger who'd left it in a parked car four days before.

Lopez-Sanchez claimed that he found it wrapped in a T-shirt lying near a park bench and fired it accidentally, but also admitted that his memory was murky because he'd taken sleeping pills that he'd found in a dumpster.

In response, California passed what actually seems to be a fairly logical piece of legislation: It requires police officers to lock up their guns when leaving them in the car.

Then there's the question of whether Lopez-Sanchez was mentally ill, something that's been largely overlooked. Court records show that a judge had previously recommended that he be sent to a federal medical facility "as soon as possible," something which never occurred.

Observers noticed him "acting bizarrely" before the shooting, and investigators determined that the bullet which hit Steinle was "clearly aimed at the ground."

click to enlarge Steinle's death was quickly exploited by people looking for an excuse to crack down on immigration. - SCREENGRAB/YOUTUBE
Steinle's death was quickly exploited by people looking for an excuse to crack down on immigration.
Lopez-Sanchez had already served a total of 15 years in prison for entering the country illegally, suggesting that the possibility of facing jail time didn't serve as much of a deterrent.

Furthermore, that he was caught trying to cross the border on three separate occasions suggests that porous borders aren't the problem here.

In fact, the reason why a clearly unstable Lopez-Sanchez was wandering around San Francisco in July 2015 had nothing to do with border security. He'd finished up a sentence in federal prison for an immigration violation earlier that year, then been turned over to the San Francisco Sheriff's Department because he had an outstanding warrant from when he'd been caught with a small amount of pot 20 years beforehand.

The San Francisco District Attorney, predictably, dropped the charges, leaving Lopez-Sanchez homeless on the city's streets for several months.

Kate's Law doesn't do anything to prevent these kinds of bureaucratic failures. What it does, instead, is to perpetuate Trump's false narrative of white women as innocent victims, and Latino men as the dangerous criminals who they need to be protected from. 

As Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, put it: "These bills are nothing new and they are not really about immigration or fighting crime. They are about racial profiling and putting Latinos, quote unquote, in our place."

Joe Flaherty contributed reporting to this story.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.