WASHINGTON - The House voted Thursday to punish local jurisdictions - so-called sanctuary cities - that defy federal immigration authorities in order to protect immigrants living illegally in the United States.
The 241-179 vote, which was backed by Republican leaders and occurred largely along party lines, is the most dramatic action taken by Congress after a spate of new attention on illegal immigration sparked by the July 1 killing of a California woman.
The shooting of Kathryn Steinle, 32, on a San Francisco pier, allegedly at the hands of an immigrant who was released from local police custody despite a detention request from federal authorities, has sparked a national debate - one that has been turbocharged by the remarks of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Steinle's father testified before a Senate committee Tuesday and before a House committee Thursday, calling on Congress to act. Her accused killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, has seven felony convictions since 1991 and has been deported five times from the United States to Mexico.
Under the legislation voted on Thursday, cities that do not comply fully with federal immigration authorities would be ineligible for various Justice Department law enforcement grants, including a program that reimburses local jurisdictions for the cost of detaining undocumented immigrants accused of or convicted of crimes.
"The American people have the right to not give their tax dollars to municipalities and states that do not follow federal law," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.), the bill's author.
House Speaker John A. Boehner also spoke out Thursday, saying, "The House is acting today to put state and local officials on notice that we'll no longer allow them to decide how and when to enforce our nation's laws," he told reporters.
A number of law enforcement organizations, civil rights groups, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have pushed back on efforts to crack down on "sanctuary cities," arguing that new policies would be counterproductive by undermining the trust between local law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
In Philadelphia, some immigration activists and civic leaders took the House action in stride.
Speaking for the Nutter administration, Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, noted that Philadelphia is part of the 20-member Cities United on Immigration Action. Members of the group pose various limits on cooperation between local police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Punitive action because of one incident is not a constructive response. It was very sad, very unfortunate," said Rodriguez, referring to the fatal shooting of Steinle, "but should not be used to fuel anti-immigrant sentiments."
In terms of federal funds that would possibly be withheld, "it is unclear at the moment what it would mean for the City of Philadelphia," she said. "We'll be looking at the fiscal aspect shortly, but at this point we don't think anything is imminent."
Sundrop Carter, organizing director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, a nonprofit, said that withholding funds for law enforcement would compound the problem: "If Congress' goal is to create safer communities and weed out violent offenders, cutting police is pretty much the opposite of what needs to happen."
It is unclear how many jurisdictions could be affected by the House bill. One group that advocates tighter immigration policies, the Center for Immigration Studies, has identified 276 states, counties, and municipalities with various "sanctuary"-type laws. Another group that opposes stronger enforcement, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, has identified more than 360 jurisdictions.
Uncertainty in Senate
Senate action is less certain. Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has introduced "Kate's Law" in honor of Steinle and has announced plans to move it through his committee.
That bill would make a wider variety of grants unavailable to "sanctuary cities" than the House bill and would increase penalties for individuals who reenter the country after having been deported.
But it is unclear when any measure might make it to the floor of the Senate, which is expected to be tied up with transportation legislation until the congressional summer recess begins in August.
The White House issued a veto threat Thursday, after spokesman Josh Earnest said the day before that President Obama would much prefer Congress act on a comprehensive immigration package.
Inquirer staff writer Michael Matza contributed to this article.