BISMARCK - Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp defended herself against a barrage of attacks over her stance on so-called "sanctuary cities" Tuesday, Aug. 21, even as Republicans acknowledge North Dakota doesn't have those immigration policies.
Heitkamp's opponent, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, and conservative groups have battered the airwaves with ads on sanctuary cities in recent weeks, including a Cramer campaign ad released Sunday. Republicans have cited several votes Heitkamp took against withholding certain federal grant money from sanctuary jurisdictions, most recently in February.
While there's no legal definition of "sanctuary cities" or jurisdictions, they are known for limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Republicans like Cramer have denounced their policies as a dangerous flouting of "the rule of law," but defenders argue they encourage trust among immigrants to report crimes to police.
President Donald Trump, whose administration has targeted sanctuary jurisdictions but faced setbacks in court, highlighted Heitkamp's votes in a visit to Fargo in late June. Cramer called it a "real nice policy contrast" with Heitkamp on a "common sense" issue for North Dakotans.
"Does it really make sense to send federal tax dollars to reward cities that decided to violate federal law and not enforce federal law?" he said.
Heitkamp, a former North Dakota attorney general, said sanctuary cities don't prevent the enforcement of federal law and warned one of the bills in question would have withheld money for law enforcement. She dismissed the criticism against her as a "scare tactic."
"I think my record on law and order is very strong, and I think my record on border security is very strong," she said. Her campaign later touted an endorsement from the National Border Patrol Council, the Border Patrol agent union.
Heitkamp also highlighted her vote in favor of "Kate's Law," which is named after a woman whose 2015 death in San Francisco ramped up the debate over sanctuary policies and illegal immigration. The bill would increase penalties for criminal deportees who re-enter the country and, Heitkamp said, help ensure violent criminals are turned over to immigration authorities, but the Senate hasn't passed it.
"The question is whether somebody who commits a violent act would be let out the door before (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) would have an opportunity ever to pick them up," she said. "And the answer is that should never happen."
Cramer has also supported Kate's Law.
North Dakota is not a sanctuary state, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in an April letter to the head of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group. The message was prompted by a mailer the group was circulating.
"There are no townships, cities, counties or regions unlawfully aiding, abetting or shielding illegal immigrants from federal immigration law, as you allege in your mailing," Stenehjem, a Republican, wrote.
Cramer said North Dakotans should still care about the issue because their tax dollars are at stake. More than 300 jurisdictions across the country have some limits on their cooperation with ICE, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
"North Dakotans, I think, should be and are concerned about taxpayer dollars being spent that way," Cramer said.
There were less than 5,000 "unauthorized" immigrants in North Dakota in 2014, according to estimates the Pew Research Center published two years ago, while neighboring Minnesota had 100,000. That would be 13 percent of North Dakota's total immigrant population and 23 percent of Minnesota's.
Cramer said he hasn't heard of a "big problem" with illegal immigration here, but that "doesn't mean that the concern of illegal immigration isn't high in North Dakota, because it is."