Anti-sanctuary legislators warn of dangerous ‘criminal aliens’

It’s Christmas time, and they’re 'spewing hatred,' says one immigrant at the hearing on a bill to punish sanctuary cities

Members of the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera and allies at a press conference on the bill imposing penalties on sanctuary cities (Photo courtesy of Voces de la Frontera).
Members of the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera and allies at a press conference on the bill imposing penalties on sanctuary cities (Photo courtesy of Voces de la Frontera).

A small group of Latino Wisconsinites, some in suits and ties, some in jeans, and some wearing T-shirts with the logo of the immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera, filed into the State Capitol Tuesday, for a hearing on a bill that would make it illegal for cities and towns to refuse to cooperate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).

Before the hearing, Christine Neumann Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, held a press conference, surrounded by community leaders, to denounce the bill as a piece of copycat, national legislation designed to scapegoat immigrants and enrich the private prison industry.

Christine Neumann Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera
Christine Neumann Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera

The Republican sponsors of Senate Bill 151 were giving full voice to the dangers posed by undocumented immigrants, as the people who had come to the Capitol with the immigrant-rights group took their seats in the hearing room.

Bill author Sen. Stephen Nass (R-La Grange) told the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform that if they are not stopped, Madison and Milwaukee will be “releasing criminal illegal aliens back into our communities.”

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes Conway, Nass said, “has gone from refusing to follow federal law to actively impeding immigration enforcement.”

The bill specifically “prohibits a city, village, town or county from enacting or enforcing an ordinance, resolution, or policy that prohibits the enforcement of a federal or state law relating to illegal aliens.”

Nass recounted a series of lurid, true-crime anecdotes of “innocent Americans who have been harmed by illegal aliens,” mostly in other states. 

He characterized sanctuary cities as magnets for crime: “These politically correct policies actually increase the risk,” he said.

Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), one of the bill’s cosponsors, concurred. “Milwaukee makes itself a sanctuary city, and then I have to deal with people who come into my county and kill people,” he said.

Nothing to do with race

The anti-sanctuary bill has nothing to do with race, Wanggaard hastened to add: “We don’t arrest people based on the color of their skin.” After all, he asked Nass to confirm, couldn’t the “illegal aliens” ICE is after be from “Germany or Asia?”

Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform
Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform

When Andrea Kaminsky of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin spoke in opposition to the bill, she related the bill directly to racial bias, saying, “We are witnessing an unhealthy spiraling of racial intolerance in our state and in our country.” 

“Wait, don’t make this racial, because it’s not!” Wanggaard interrupted, prompting a burst of incredulous laughter from  onlookers in the hearing room. But the very words used by the anti-sanctuary bills’ sponsors to describe immigrants carried heavy racial connotations. 

“They are illegal aliens,” Wanggaard said. “They are not immigrants—like my parents were, who came through Ellis Island … that’s an immigrant.”

Sen. Robert Wirch (D-Somers) objected that the bill, which would impose fines on municipalities that don’t cooperate with ICE, amounts to “big government Republicans telling local government what to do.”

“By the way,” Wirch added, “when are we going to talk about violence committed by white nationalists?”

“You are damned incorrect, Senator,” Nass replied heatedly. “You try to bring humor into it, which is despicable … local control is about obeying the law.”

Wirch tried again, noting that the city and county officials who have passed sanctuary ordinances were elected by the voters. “If they’re not doing a good job, they can be defeated.”

“Why should local people run for office if you’re going to make the decisions down here in Madison?” He added.

“What you are saying is that we can elect people and they can break the law,” Nass replied. “That’s stunning.”

What about local control?

But Wirch is not the only one who sees the anti-sanctuary city bill as part of a pattern of overreach by a legislature that wants to usurp local control.

“We’ve seen this over and over again,” said Madison City Council President Shiva Bidar, who said she attended hearings on a failed anti-sanctuary-city measure last year. “This is the same type of deal. I think it really represents a bigger strategy of trying to [destroy] local control.”

“And then, clearly, they are also pushing an anti-immigrant, racist agenda.”

Madison officials have reached a consensus view that a policy of non-non-cooperation with ICE actually makes the community safer. 

Madison Police Chief Victor Wahl
Madison Police Chief Victor Wahl

“The way that this narrative is being used to talk about sanctuary cities as something that creates lawlessness. … Our city of Madison, our chief of police, believe that actually, [sanctuary policy] really creates a safer city because it allows trust-building,” said Bidar, “and allows immigrant communities to be able to call on law enforcement to really participate in the community. So I think we know that it’s really the opposite.”

Madison Police Chief Victor Wahl was sitting in the hearing room waiting to testify for an hour and a half before he had to leave without having the chance to speak. There were no time limits on testimony. After Nass spoke in favor of his bill, Debra Guenterberg of Princeton, Wisconsin, spoke for an hour about her husband’s experience as a victim of identity theft by “two male Hispanics.”

‘I feel victimized’

Debra Guenterberg testifying
Debra Guenterberg

“I am shaking I’m so angry,” Guenterberg testified. “I’m not a racist, but I’ve been called a racist. I’ve been threatened,” she said.

“I feel victimized every time I hear stories about illegal aliens being victims,” Guenterberg went on. 

Guenterberg described being contacted by Fox News to help with a stake-out of one of the identity thieves’ houses. 

When Kaminiski of the League of Women Voters testified later that many local law enforcement officers favored policies of non-cooperation with ICE, Nass said, “I’m not aware of those law enforcement officials.” 

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee), told the committee that the Madison police chief, who opposed the bill, had to leave. Nass dismissed her point. “Chief Wahl, I’m sure, is taking marching orders from the city of Madison,” he said.

Zamarripa sparred vigorously with Nass and the other bill sponsors, saying “your bill punishes entire communities.”

“I think you’re confused and looking at it from a very simplistic point of view,” she added, pointing out that the fear of deportation would make immigrants distrustful of the police and reluctant to report crimes.

Punishing taxpayers in sanctuary cities

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee) testifies in committee
Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee)

Zamarripa and Nass argued about whether the bill imposes daily fines on municipalities that have sanctuary-city policies, burdening taxpayers in those areas.

The bill specifically states: “If a court finds that a political subdivision has failed to comply, the Department of Revenue must reduce the political subdivision’s shared revenue payments in the next year by $500 to $5,000, depending on the political subdivision’s population, for each day of noncompliance.”

Also, under the bill, “if a court makes such a finding, the political subdivision is liable for any damages caused by an illegal alien.”

Nass said that Zamarripa’s claim that whole communities were being punished for having sanctuary policies was “untrue,” but then conceded, “If you don’t cooperate with ICE—yes.”

Zamarripa warned that the bill will not be signed into law. “You didn’t get it passed when you had both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office, and you won’t get it passed with Gov. Tony Evers,” she said.

She said she hoped the bill sponsors’ constituents would call them and object that the measure would make their communities less safe. 

“Not true. In my district, not a problem,” Nass said.

Wanggaard objected, once again, that “you are making it a racial issue.” He described the people of various ethnic backgrounds who live in his district who also want to be safe from crime.

“Immigrants overwhelmingly are very safe folks,” Zamarippa said.

She offered to work with Wanggaard on bipartisan legislation that would help immigrants find a pathway to citizenship.

Her comments drew loud applause in the room. “We can’t have that!” Nass snapped at the audience. “If it continues we’ll have to clear the room.”

Stefani Sani, a U.S. citizen who moved to the United States from Italy 39 years ago, was removed by security after hissing at Republican committee members when they spoke. 

“It’s disgusting to listen to this,” she said, as she was led out the door. “Come on, guys. Be mature people. You’re all jerks.”

“It’s so demeaning,” Sani said as she lingered in the hall outside the hearing room. “I’m not Latino,” she added. “I was insulted, too, when I came to live in this country. The immigration agent told my husband, ‘Why are you marrying her, you know she just wants to live in this country.’” 

“Historically it’s always been easy to have an enemy, to target somebody,” she added. “Now it’s ‘illegal aliens,’ as they call it. In a period of Christmas, that is their narrative. They’re spewing hatred.” 

She shook her head. “I don’t know where they live, these people. My friends, family, neighbors — they’re pretty good people. They just want to contribute to society and be happy.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.