Legislation to make immigration a state offense left as ‘unfinished business’


DES MOINES — A bill making illegal immigration a state offense did not advance in the Iowa House but was placed in the unfinished business category as the legislature’s “Funnel Week” concluded.

Rep. Sue Cahill (D-Marshalltown) said that means Senate File 2340 (SF2340), which would require law enforcement to transport undocumented people to a port of entry, is in a sort of limbo, and legislators will be able to return to the bill if they choose to do so.

Maria Gonzalez-Alvarez with Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown said the introduction of certain laws has created a difficult situation for families with mixed immigration statuses.

“These laws have a far-reaching impact on various aspects of life, including education, sports programs, and community initiatives that cater to immigrants,” she said. “As a result, families are reluctant to participate in such programs as they fear for their safety during transportation. This situation may discourage people from accessing these programs, thereby affecting their well-being.”

If legislators return to the bill, there are limitations placed on law enforcement which does not allow them to arrest someone for illegal status at school, in church or in a healthcare facility. SF2340 was passed by the Iowa Senate on March 5, on a 34-16 vote. Sen. Jeff Edler (R-State Center) voted in favor of the bill.


“We need to bring attention to what is going on with the lack of the federal government doing its job,” he said. “This bill is a tool for local law enforcement. It puts teeth behind criminalizing coming to the country illegally. Illegal means illegal.”

Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper said he believes the bill is unnecessary, adding that immigration is an issue which rears its head during every presidential election cycle without anything being done.

“I believe [SF2340] is going to diminish public safety in our state, rather than help us keep our community safe,” he said. “Here in Iowa, we are not going to be able to solve the border problem or address immigration. It’s a federal issue.”

The enforcement of immigration law has never been under the authority of local law enforcement. He said other states tried to have similar laws to Iowa’s, and the federal courts intervened, raising the question of whether SF2340 is even lawful.


Marshall County Attorney Jordan Gaffney was not sure if the federal government would intervene but added the bill would make being in the country illegally a serious misdemeanor in the state of Iowa.

Lack of resources

The logistics of SF2340 are a concern for Tupper, Cahill, Gaffney and Marshall County Sheriff Joel Phillips.

“We don’t have the law enforcement resources or training to deal with these federal crimes,” Tupper said. “We need comprehensive immigration reform in this country. We should not be putting local law enforcement in a position to be immigration officers. That is not our role.”

Cahill asked if the bill is an example of utilizing local law enforcement to the greatest advantage. SF2340 states that if a court determines a person is guilty of being in the country without documentation, that person can be transported to the port of entry — Des Moines — by local authorities.

“I am not in favor of that because our law enforcement is for keeping our local areas safe, not to transfer or return folks without documentation to ports of entry,” she said. “This puts local law enforcement in a hard place because they want to attend to crimes within their jurisdiction.”

Gaffney said the bill does not make it clear if transportation would have to occur immediately.

“That would depend on the language of the court order,” he said.


Phillips asked which agency would be responsible for the transportation, and he is concerned about taking a deputy off Marshall County roads so transportation to Des Moines could take place. Plus, he asked who would be responsible to ensure the person returns to his or her home country.

Flights from the Des Moines airport often have layovers in other cities.

“If there is a connecting flight in Charlotte, what is stopping them from getting off?” Phillips asked.

The sheriff also wondered about children and spouses of people who are transported.

“That creates a burden with social services,” he said. “It’s a lot to deal with as far as the logistics. There’s a lot of stuff to work out. It’s going to create burdens, but when it comes to enforcing law, we can’t say we won’t enforce it. I just wish that there was a resolution for our border control. It’s going to tie up a lot of our resources when we should rely on our federal agencies.”

Tupper added people should understand when an undocumented person is jailed for a crime, immigration enforcement is notified.

“In Iowa, people are not getting away with committing crimes and being undocumented and just being let go,” he said. “That does not happen in Iowa.”

Tupper is sure someone could find a flashpoint issue to prove him wrong, but during his career, federal immigration officials have always been notified of undocumented criminals. Whatever happens to them is up to immigration, he said, not local authorities.

“I think this is a solution looking for a problem, and it’s going to have unintended consequences that make my job much more difficult,” Tupper said.

Phillips said another burden placed on local authorities is the task to get identification for undocumented people when there are none, as well as the issue of how long they would have to be housed in the county jail.

“There is a process, and I don’t think the process works quickly,” he said. “So, how long will that individual be in the county jail? The process creates taxation on our resources, a lot of our facilities are already at capacity. One of my concerns is how much it increases the capacity of our county jail.”

Phillips said if legislators return and pass the bill, it might place another burden of eliminating programs. For example, the sheriff’s DARE officer teaches two or three times per week. The program might have to be suspended to fulfill the obligations.


Another concern is the erosion of trust between the public and law enforcement. Tupper said there is already too much work for his officers, and SF2340 would be an unfunded mandate.


“It’s going to make it more difficult to keep our community safe, because there’s going to be some people who fear law enforcement now as a result of this legislation,” he said. “What I really worry about is (that) victims of crime will be very vulnerable to being perpetrated against over and over again, because they will be afraid to ask law enforcement for help. That is not what we want. The Marshalltown Police Department cannot be effective if the community does not trust us, and not call us when they need help, or call us when they can help us.”

Phillips shared the concern of undocumented victims and witnesses not reporting crimes. They are already hesitant, he said.

“We try to build that trust, because no one deserves to be a victim of crime,” Phillips said. “Everyone deserves protection. They should not live in fear.”

Gaffney said one important detail regarding public trust if this bill becomes law is transparency.

“Law enforcement do not ask for status when meeting with victims or during traffic stops,” he said. “That is not part of the practice. Regardless of who someone is, their past, if someone is a victim, we provide service and want justice met on behalf of everyone. The needs of victims being met is an important and essential component of who we are and what we do every day.”

Phillips said status is not the concern of his office, but rather why a person is in jail in the first place. Status is self-reported, and that is when the sheriff’s office contacts Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), he said. The federal agency then determines whether or not to proceed.

Tupper is also concerned about racial profiling and believes SF2340 puts officers in a position where they have to profile.

“It’s unlawful,” he said. “And it’s going to erode the trust we have built. I think we have a good reputation in our community. We have good relationships throughout. When the state passes legislation like this, it harms the relationships.”

Phillips said his office has worked hard to eliminate profiling, and they cannot stop someone because of the way they look or their religion and then question their immigration status.

“That is against best policing policies,” he said.

Tupper said just because a person comes to the country without documentation, that does not mean crime is their intention.

“Pick a demographic — there’s always a small percentage of that demographic committing crime,” Tupper said. “We don’t see more crime in our community because we have a diverse community.”

Immigrant Allies member Joa LaVille said the bill does give a permission slip for racial profiling.

“This bill will impact everyone who is an immigrant, legal or not, those who look like they could be an immigrant, and all those who care about those community members,” she said. “So an awful lot of people in Marshalltown will be affected. In addition, this bill would undo years of proactive efforts by our law enforcement community to build trust with the immigrant community, which leads to a safer community for all of us.”

Edler said there are some details which need to be worked out while the bill is in legislation, and added there is time to get public information.

“The point is the federal government needs to do its job,” he said. “This is a federal issue that they are not taking care of. The state is trying to provide law enforcement with new tools so the state has the capacity to deal with it.”

Gonzalez-Alvarez encouraged people to contact their legislators.

“It is essential to ensure that our representatives hear our voices and understand how their decisions can affect those within our community,” she said.


Contact Lana Bradstream

at 641-753-6611 ext. 210 or



Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today