CARSON CITY — Nevada will continue to be ground zero in the immigration debate, potentially for the next two election cycles.
Nevada voters may get to choose in the 2018 election whether to amend the state constitution to ban sanctuary cities. Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson is leading the charge and announced last week the creation of Prevent Sanctuary Cities, a political action committee to pursue a ballot question that would prevent Nevada from allowing sanctuary cities.
Critics say the move is a political calculation and hurtful to the immigrant community. Roberson says it’s a matter of public safety and is needed to prevent future laws from tying the hands of law enforcement.
If successful in 2018, the issue would be on the ballot again in 2020, when President Donald Trump is up for re-election.
Roberson, R-Henderson, vigorously opposed Senate Bill 223, which would have prevented state and local law enforcement from conducting immigration enforcement operations.
Both bills have died. Still, the debate will extend beyond the statehouse after the Legislature adjourns on June 5.
In an interview in his Senate office, Roberson doesn’t mince words about his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature and the legislation they pushed.
“Certainly many of them sponsored or tried to push through a bill that would have made Nevada a sanctuary state,” Roberson said.
“They have been pushing all session an aggressive, pro-felon, pro-criminal agenda,” he added.
Even now, he doesn’t rule out a last-minute effort from Democratic lawmakers.
“It doesn’t mean they won’t try to slip something through in the next 30 days,” he said. “I’m concerned they’re going to try again before the end of the session. I’m even more concerned that they will try again next session and so I want to put this to the people because I know the voters of Nevada feel very differently than these politicians in Carson City.”
Currently, Nevada has no sanctuary cities. Nor does state law define what, exactly, a sanctuary city is.
Roberson said his goal is to prevent laws that hamstring local law enforcement. Specifically, he doesn’t want to see laws put in place that prevent local police from notifying federal immigration authorities or homeland security officials when a suspect has been arrested for a crime and is undocumented.
‘The scenario I’m talking about is when local law enforcement has already detained someone for committing a crime or being a suspect in a crime or a suspect in a terrorist activity,” Roberson said.
Simply put, “a sanctuary city or a sanctuary state is when the politicians instruct law enforcement not to do their job,” he said.
“What we want to do is make sure that local law enforcement is able to work with federal law enforcement and remove dangerous criminal aliens from our community,” Roberson said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Immigrant advocates and experts say that the “sanctuary cities” term is open to interpretation.
“The term ‘sanctuary’ has been manipulated and used in these types of cases to scare people and to make it seem as if all criminals are just being let loose in the streets to run rampant, and that’s not what it is,” said Astrid Silva, an immigration reform advocate from Las Vegas who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last year.
Michael Kagan, an immigration law professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, said: “I think what’s going on here is that the label, the symbol ‘sanctuary cities’ is attractive to both left and right.”
“In order for Senator Roberson to ban sanctuary cities, he first has to define what he wants to ban,” he said.
Effort draws critics
“This is a harmful initiative that puts families at risk in the hopes of partisan political benefit,” she said. “It’s shameless and the community will see it as an affront to their very safety in Nevada.”
Silva also said Roberson’s effort is harmful to Nevada.
“To me, I think it’s disgusting,” she said. “It’s not what Nevada is and I just find it really disappointing that Senator Roberson, instead of working for a solution, is using this to get himself ahead in politics instead of caring about what’s happening.”
It’s important that immigrants in the community can contact the police to report a crime or take their kids to school without fear, she said.
“I think that our community works best when they are working with the police,” she said.
In a statement, Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, said: “This attack on immigrant families is shameful. We commend our elected officials who have declared their support for sanctuary cities, and we demand that those who have not yet pledged support of immigrants who are under attack do the same.”
Nevada State Democratic Party spokesman Stewart Boss called Roberson’s effort “shameless political maneuvering.”
“Senator Roberson is so desperate to avoid a repeat in 2018 of his humiliating primary loss to Danny Tarkanian that he is now going overboard to demonize and target undocumented immigrants,” Boss said.
Laura Martin, a spokeswoman for PLAN, said the effort is an attempt for Roberson to get attention.
“It’s clear that I guess he feels the only way he can be relevant and keep his name on people’s minds is to sell out to Donald Trump,” she said.
Roberson disputes that the proposed ballot question is an anti-immigrant measure, saying it allows law enforcement to root out criminals who hurt people in immigrant communities.
“They can cast aspersions all they want,” he said. “It does not deter me and it does not bother me because frankly, I don’t care what they think.”
The initial work will be behind the scenes after the session ends in June. Once the blackout period for fundraising ends, Roberson intends to start raising money for the PAC.
The goal is to get the legal language for the ballot written and vetted so that work to gather the necessary number of signatures can begin in September.
Roberson isn’t expecting the measure — or himself — to avoid criticism.
“They can say whatever they want, but they don’t know what my intentions are,” Roberson said. “I’m telling you what my intentions are. This is a serious problem and I got to tell you, this is in reaction to what they are trying to push this session.”
Contact Ben Botkin at email@example.com or 775-461-0661. Follow @BenBotkin1 on Twitter.
Amending the Nevada Constitution
— To qualify for the 2018 ballot, supporters will need to get signatures from 112,000 registered voters — 10 percent of the 1.12 million voters who participated in the last election.
— If the ballot measure qualifies and passes in 2018, it would face voters again in 2020.
— After passing a second time, it would be part of the state constitution.