Kim Reynolds quietly signed unconstitutional immigration bill

Governor Kim Reynolds has signed a bill designed to force Iowa police and sheriffs to assist with federal immigration enforcement.

In so doing, she undermined public safety and constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures–not only for those living in Iowa without legal authorization, but also for immigrants who are lawfully present or even U.S. citizens.


The goal of Senate File 481 is to require local officials to honor warrantless Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests. Barbara Rodriguez reported for the Associated Press in January,

The bill would prohibit policies that don’t allow local authorities to:

— Question the immigration status of people under lawful detention or arrest.

— Assist federal immigration agents with arrests.

— Use any Iowa jail as part of federal agents’ work.

Local governments that intentionally violate provisions would be denied state funding.

Although Iowa does not have any “sanctuary cities,” more than two dozen counties “have adopted policies in which they refuse to hold prisoners in jail beyond their scheduled release dates at the request of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.”

As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, an unusually broad coalition opposed this bill. The dozens of organizations that registered against it included religious groups, local governments, advocates for immigrants or crime victims, and representatives of law enforcement (Iowa lState Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association, Iowa Police Chief Association, Iowa County Attorneys Association, and the Iowa Attorney General’s office). Only two groups lobbied lawmakers to approve the bill: the fringe group Iowa Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, and the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a prominent Christian conservative organization.

The bill’s lead author was Republican State Senator Julian Garrett. He has insisted that the legislation only targets people who have no legal authorization to be here and who broke the law: “If you haven’t committed a crime, if you’re not getting arrested, this bill has no impact on you at all,” he told Rodriguez.

Garrett spent twelve years as an assistant Iowa attorney general, yet somehow he has failed to grasp a simple fact: “mere unlawful presence in the country is not a crime. It is a violation of federal immigration law to remain in the country without legal authorization, but this violation is punishable by civil penalties, not criminal.” In addition, someone “cannot be criminally charged or incarcerated simply for being undocumented.” Sheriffs are not typically allowed “to arrest people for violating federal administrative rules […].”


When the Iowa Senate approved Senate File 481 in April 2017, every Republican present voted yes, joined by four Democrats: Chaz Allen, Tod Bowman, Jeff Danielson, and Amanda Ragan. But the lower chamber didn’t advance the bill until this year.

A House Public Safety subcommittee approved Senate File 481 on a party-line vote in January after many witnesses testified against it and not a single person spoke in favor.

More than a month passed before the House Public Safety Committee took up the bill in early March. The committee divided mostly along party lines, except that GOP State Representative Gary Worthan voted no. He lives in Storm Lake (Buena Vista County), which has a large Latino population. Worthan said at the time, “I’m listening to the people back home. Our school district was against this bill. Our local chief of police was against this bill for community policing reasons. The same with the county sheriff.”

House Republicans amended the bill before passing Senate File 481 on April 3. The original version empowered the Iowa attorney general or any county attorney to receive complaints and conduct investigations to determine whether a local government was violating the law and should lose its state funding. The House amendment removed county attorneys from that equation, so only the Attorney General’s office can receive and investigate complaints about local authorities not cooperating with ICE. Under the revised bill, the local government entity could apply to have state funding reinstated after 90 days; the original draft said twelve months.

The amendment did not address the bill’s constitutional problems or concerns that the measure would make communities less safe, as immigrants became more reluctant to report crimes or cooperate with investigating officers.

More than a dozen House Democrats spoke passionately against Senate File 481; you can watch videos of the floor debate here and here. Then members passed the bill by 55 votes to 45 (roll call). State Representative Charlie McConkey was the only Democrat to vote yes, while five Republicans voted no: Worthan, Michael Bergan, Dave Heaton, Kevin Koester, and Megan Jones.

When the Senate took up the bill the following day, Republicans voted down two amendments offered by independent State Senator David Johnson, which would have gutted the bill, then concurred in the House amendment. The vote on final passage was 28 to 18. Every Democrat present opposed the bill, including Allen, Danielson, and Ragan, who had supported Senate File 481 a year ago. (Bowman was absent for last week’s vote.) Democrat Rich Taylor voted “present,” as he had done in 2017.


Reynolds signaled plans to demagogue against undocumented immigrants by touting her opposition to sanctuary cities in a campaign fundraising e-mail earlier this year. However, she may no longer see Senate File 481 as a political winner. She signed the bill on April 10 without any public event, nor did she brag about the new law in a stand-alone press release. Rather, the news was buried in the middle of a release about seventeen bills signed that day.

At the governor’s next press conference, journalists should ask why she ignored police chiefs and county sheriffs who warned the bill would impede their crime-fighting efforts. Beth Barnhill, Executive Director for the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, slammed Reynolds in this April 11 statement.

It’s ironic that Governor Reynolds—someone who has repeatedly voiced her support for survivors of sexual violence in the past—should sign this egregious piece of legislation into law during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Shame on you, Governor. Your signature on Senate File 481 undermines any previous support you’ve voiced for survivors. Immigrant communities will suffer as a result of your decision to sign this bill.

Some legislators would have you believe that this bill will somehow create safer communities. In fact, SF 481 has the opposite effect. This legislation puts immigrant survivors of sexual violence, domestic abuse, and human trafficking at risk. Immigrant survivors already face significant barriers when seeking assistance. A victim of crime won’t call the police if they believe they may be deported, or if they believe a family member or a friend may face deportation.

SF 481 subverts public safety and harms community relationships with local law enforcement. Victim service providers routinely work with law enforcement to ensure immigrant survivors know their rights and can access legal protections if they so choose. SF 481 disregards these efforts, thereby denying immigrant survivors’ access to safety and legal protection. What’s more, law enforcement officials actively opposed this bill as it worked its way through the legislature. What kind of message does this send to Iowa’s immigrant communities?

Under your leadership, Governor Reynolds, we believe Iowa must do better. We owe it to survivors, and to the immigrant communities who call our great state home.

The good news is that courts may block the new law before it goes into effect.


Some federal courts have held that prolonged warrantless detentions violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At least one organization will challenge Iowa’s new law on those grounds. Joe Henry, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens Council 307 and LULAC’s national vice president of the Midwest, confirmed on April 4 that LULAC intends to file a lawsuit naming the governor and Attorney General Tom Miller as defendants. After Reynolds signed the bill, the leading civil rights organization for Latinos said in a news release,

“The statute is unconstitutional, and the most anti-immigrant legislation proposed to date in Iowa,” said Joe Henry, LULAC National vice president of the Midwest and President of Council 307.

Latinx Immigrants of Iowa has started an online petition to oppose SF 481. The petition now has more than 20,000 Iowans’ signatures against the legislation.

“Our businesses and community are against this bill that promotes hate, racism and lies against anyone who is different,” said Jose Alvarado, an organizer with Latinx Immigrants of Iowa. “Anyone who stands out as different will be targeted. This bill does not represent Iowa. It is not what a good Christian would do to another. We are all one under Iowa. Our races and colors should not divide us.”

Henry said the bill would result in further breakdown of trust between law enforcement officials and the immigrant community by creating more discrimination and victimization.

“LULAC will continue its fight against this hateful bill, working in coalition with community, religious, social justice and labor organizations and all legal means necessary,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa may go to court as well, judging by the statement legal director Rita Bettis released on April 10.

“Let’s be clear. It violates a person’s constitutional rights for lowa law enforcement to hold them without a warrant or probable cause of a crime. But that is what ICE detainer requests ask Iowa law enforcement to do. That’s because ICE “detainer requests” are exactly that: an ask of local law enforcement to hold a person without a warrant or probable cause. As a result of this, we are deeply concerned about the passage of SF481 and will strive to defend the constitutional rights of Iowans against unlawful detentions.

While all people are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures, regardless of immigration status, the bill doesn’t even make exceptions to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who can demonstrate their citizenship or current green card to law enforcement. Note that even the terrible SB 4 bill out of Texas made provisions for people who could prove citizenship or lawful immigration status to local law enforcement.

To understand the weight of the problem here, remember that all an ICE detainer does is provide a window of days for ICE to investigate their suspicions that a person is not lawfully present. It is not even an assertion that a determination has been made. Because detainers aren’t warrants (which require law enforcement to go in front of a neutral magistrate to make their case), they just aren’t reliable indicators of a person’s immigration status. Holding a person in jail beyond the time authorized by state law—i.e., after the person posts bail, is released on his or her own recognizance, completes a sentence, or is acquitted— is a new arrest and must be authorized by a judicial warrant or independent probable cause of a crime. And a detainer request issued by ICE simply isn’t either of those things.

Most often, ICE detainers are merely the beginning of an investigation into someone’s status, and that investigation often goes nowhere. For example, government data indicates that, during a four-year period, the Obama Administration placed detainer requests on 834 U.S. citizens. (U.S. citizens are categorically not subject to removal.) These incidents show that ICE detainers are frequently issued haphazardly. Given the Trump Administration’s efforts to expand ICE personnel and to heighten focus on immigration enforcement, it is inevitable that these types of mistakes will only increase.

Listening to the debate about this bill was truly disturbing and disheartening. Our constitution protects citizens and immigrants alike, including undocumented immigrants. But even if legislators who voted for it care about the constitutional rights only of U.S. citizens in Iowa, or those who are lawfully present, it’s important to note that SF 481 is written so poorly that even they aren’t excluded from the bill’s reach.

It’s important to note that the bill does not go into effect until July 1. We are currently considering all our options to combat this harmful bill.”

Meanwhile, we’d like to remind people of their rights under Iowa law. The rights spelled out in our materials will continue even after July 1.

Final note: Although the Attorney General’s office registered against Senate File 481, a rumor was floating around the capitol that someone on Miller’s staff had privately assured state lawmakers the bill was constitutional. Lynn Hicks, communications director for the Attorney General’s office, told Bleeding Heartland on April 4, “The AG’s office has not provided any opinion or informal guidance on the constitutionality of the bill. Any claim otherwise is inaccurate.”

Arguably, Republicans got what they wanted out of Senate File 481–a talking point for their re-election campaigns. Even if courts eventually strike down the law, litigation won’t be resolved until long after the 2018 elections.

UPDATE: Will Greenberg reported for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen on April 11,

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek called it a “terrible law.”

“We want to fight,” said Johnson County Supervisor Mike Carberry, who said the county Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to contest the law. “We think it’s a target on Johnson County and Iowa City for the way that we have handled our public safety.”

Johnson County didn’t pass any measures on the county’s sanctuary status, but the board and sheriff did issue a statement in March 2017 saying the sheriff’s office would not honor detainer requests or assist federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement on raids.

Pulkrabek said he hasn’t gotten a detainer request in a while, and when he does interact with federal law enforcement officials they usually ask when a particular detainee is being released so they can be picked up again. […]

“There have been no examples presented during this whole debate where local law enforcement did not work with federal officials on a concern about someone being in the country illegally,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. “I take great offense at the characterization of our public safety officials in Johnson County.” […]

Carberry said supervisors plan to send a letter to other counties throughout the state this week to ask for help finding a case where a public employee is harmed by the law so they can spur a lawsuit against it.

Top image: A large crowd gathers outside the Iowa capitol on April 11 to protest Senate File 481. Photo by State Senator Rob Hogg, used with permission.

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  • It's not about bipartisan solutions, it's about party.

    I’m one of the Johnson County liberals targeted by the Reynolds administration who tried to get the City of Iowa City to become a sanctuary city.

    With a group of about 20 faith and labor leaders we advocated city council to become a Sanctuary City and they said no. As this article points out, there are no sanctuary cities in Iowa, including some of our most diverse places.

    Senate File 481 is a solution looking for a problem. During senate debate, Senator Kevin Kinney, a former law enforcement officer, explained to Republican lawmakers promoting SF481 that the Johnson County Sheriff sends fingerprints to the Department of Criminal Investigation and ICE after arrests. Nothing is hidden from federal law enforcement authorities. The bill is without merit, he said.

    In today’s Iowa City Press Citizen county sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek details his concerns. They are the same concerns he had when our group interviewed him back in 2011-2012. When ICE is interested in someone the county has arrested they issue a detainer request, instead of complying, the county communicates with ICE when the suspect will be released, giving them the option to arrest him or her if there is probable cause.

    Why is a non-problem like immigration enforcement raising its ugly head with Republicans today? It is an election year and Republicans under pressure for their poor leadership seek to distract us from their follies and incompetence. It is a scare tactic proven successful in the past. What do they have to lose?