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Federal judge to decide whether Iowa's 'illegal reentry' immigration law can be enforced

a group of immigrant supporters rallies outside the federal courthouse in Des Moines with a sign that says "immigrants and refugees welcome"
Katarina Sostaric
Immigrants and advocates rallied outside the federal courthouse in Des Moines Monday as lawyers for the U.S. DOJ and civil rights groups asked a judge to block Iowa's 'illegal reentry' immigration law.

A federal judge in Des Moines said he plans to decide before July 1 whether Iowa’s immigration law making “illegal reentry” a state crime can be enforced.

Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice and Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice argued in court Monday that the law should be blocked from enforcement because it conflicts with the federal government’s authority to make immigration laws and with federal protections for immigrants fleeing persecution.

Patrick Valencia with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office said the state law should go into effect because it simply allows state officials to enforce existing federal immigration laws and does not create new standards for who can be charged with immigration crimes and ordered to leave the country.

The law signed by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in April creates the state crime of “illegal reentry.” If it takes effect, state and local law enforcement would be allowed to arrest immigrants who are in Iowa after previously being deported or denied entry to the U.S., and state courts could order them to leave the country.

U.S. DOJ attorney Christopher Eiswerth said regulating immigration is “purely a federal responsibility.”

“If the law is permitted to go into effect July 1st, the U.S. will suffer irreparable harm,” he said, adding that it would particularly affect foreign relations by hurting the federal government’s ability to work with other countries to address migration issues.

Eiswerth said even if it was true that Iowa’s law does not conflict with federal law, the U.S. Supreme Court previously decided that the federal government fully controls immigration and there is no legal room for states to pass their own immigration laws.

Valencia said the federal government has the sole authority to set standards for the admissibility and removability of immigrants, but he said that does not take away the state’s “police power” to enforce those federal standards.

“There is an immigration crisis in this country,” he said.

Valencia said a human trafficking crisis comes with that, and Iowa is a hub. He said the Iowa Legislature is trying to address that by allowing state and local officials to remove people who aren’t authorized to be in the country.

The DOJ and civil rights groups said in court that the state law does not fully match federal law because it does not include federal language that protects people who were previously deported but now have permission to be in the country from being charged with the crime of illegal reentry.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Locher asked Valencia about that discrepancy between the state and federal laws.

“Don’t I have to conclude that the Iowa Legislature left that language out for a reason?” he asked.

Valencia said other sections of Iowa’s immigration law mean people would only be prosecuted based on their current immigration status, not a past deportation order. He said it would not affect people who are permanent legal residents.

But Emma Winger, the deputy legal director for the American Immigration Council who spoke in court on behalf of Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, said the state law would allow some immigrants with legal status to be arrested and deported.

“The state is attempting to rewrite the law the legislature passed in an effort to save it,” Winger said. “That’s what they’re trying to do here. They’re faced with a plainly preempted law and they’re trying to fix it now. And they just can’t do that.”

Locher also pressed the lawyers for the plaintiffs with questions about a sentence in federal law that addresses state involvement in deportation orders when someone being charged with a state crime agrees to be removed from the country.

Eiswerth and Winger said that does not allow states to set up their own deportation systems.

Locher said he would issue a ruling as fast as he can. His decision will very likely be appealed to a higher court by the losing party.

Outside of the federal courthouse in Des Moines, a crowd of people with immigrant advocacy groups like Escucha Mi Voz Iowa and Iowa City Catholic Worker rallied against Iowa’s immigration law.

Erica Johnson, executive director of Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, said hundreds of people showed up Monday because they are paying attention and they want the law to be blocked from taking effect.

“We can all agree that we need a workable, humane U.S. immigration system,” she said. “The problem is that [the law] is just the opposite of that. It’s unworkable. It’s creating fear and driving misinformation in immigrant communities around our state.”

Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird said in a news release that because President Joe Biden “refuses to enforce our immigration laws, Iowa is doing the job for him.”

“Biden’s open borders have not only caused record illegal immigration, but they have opened the door for drug cartels, human traffickers, and suspected terrorists to enter our country,” she said. “Today, we made the case in court defending Iowa’s law that prohibits illegal reentry and keeps our communities safe. If Biden invested half as much energy into securing our borders as he does suing states like Iowa, we would all be better off.”

Biden issued an executive order last week to deny asylum claims for most migrants who illegally cross the southern border.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter