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As Ohio Debates Sanctuary Cities, Lawmaker's Comments Strike Some As "White Supremacy"

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security)
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The bill from Republican State Rep. Candice Keller looks to hold cities and city officials criminally liable for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

The fight over how the state should deal with immigration issues has Republicans and Democrats at the Statehouse backing competing bills. And both sides are already using strong language.

Newly-elected Republican Rep. Candice Keller has been working on legislation to outlaw sanctuary cities in Ohio. She says she’ll propose her bill because she’s found evidence that sanctuary cities nationwide are "full of Muslim refugees" and have become havens for criminals.

“There are 8,000 unauthorized immigrants with criminal records that have been treated by sanctuary cities despite the fact that federal authorities have been requested that they be turned over for deportations,” Keller said this week.

“And so in eight months’ time, 7,500 new charges (were) placed on many of those people, including child sex abuse. A lot of the culture and a lot of what we are seeing come in includes not only terrorism and crime but sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases, child marriage, child rape and prostitution. Six states have already reported rape and sexual assault.”

When asked by reporters, Keller could not elaborate on the basis for her statement.

“This is a type of language is dangerous here in Ohio," said Democratic state representative Stephanie Howse on Tuesday. "This type of language is based on white supremacy because what are you saying? Whose culture? Who is going to get raped?

Keller’s bill would hold cities and officials criminally and civilly liable for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. It's received some high-profile support from state Treasurer Josh Mandel.

Both politicians backed President Donald Trump, who has spoken out strongly against sanctuary cities. Keller’s southwest Ohio district went overwhelmingly for Trump, and Mandel has been relying on Trump-like language in the campaign he’s launched for next year’s U.S. Senate race.

“Representative Keller is from Butler County," Howse said. "I don’t know the demographics to the tee, but I can guarantee you the majority of the people in Butler County don’t look like me, don’t look like Representative Ramos. And what you are saying is people who are different than you are causing a disruption to your culture? Where’s the evidence?”

Keller and Mandel cited the Center for Immigration Studies to back up some of their claims. That group has been criticized in the past by some liberal-leaning groups as being biased against pro-immigration policies. 

Other sources, such as a study published in the Washington Post, show there has been no increase in crime in sanctuary cities and in some of them, the crime rate went down.  

"At the same time, sanctuary policies are typically designed to increase trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement," the study's authors wrote. "Thus, crime reporting — but not crime itself — might actually increase in these locations if undocumented immigrants are more likely to work with police and local authorities."

Columbus recently passed more protections for undocumented immigrants, but city leaders stopped short of calling it a sanctuary city. Cincinnati leaders recently embraced the title.

Officials in both cities say they did to provide protection for immigrants who have illegal status. Refugees, to which Keller was intermittently referring, typically have legal status already.

A day after Keller made her comments, Howse and fellow Democratic State Rep. Dan Ramos talked about their own bill. Like Keller’s, it’s still in the works, but their proposal would hold sanctuary cities harmless from penalties or retribution.

“When you talk about blaming immigrants and their culture for committing crimes including assaults and rapes and bringing in sexually transmitted diseases, this is a type of language that is dangerous here in Ohio,” Howse said.

There’s no word on what priority the sanctuary city ban has in the Republican-controlled legislature, but House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger’s office has said the GOP caucus will take a close look at it.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.