Immigration attorney describes Iowa GOP anti-migrant bill as ‘redundant’

Emily Sinnwell of the Iowa City Catholic Workers and Ninoska Campos speak to Iowa Senators during a Tuesday hearing on anti-migrant legislation. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

March 13, 2024

Immigration advocates noted there are a few issues with a new Republican-backed bill aimed at undocumented migrants that is working its way through the Iowa Legislature.

HF 2608 would require the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to verify the citizenship status of anyone who applies for public assistance, something the agency already does. 

The bill would also create a new broad “smuggling” law—inspired by a similar Texas law that is currently tied up in the courts—that comes with felony-level charges for those found guilty of breaking it. 

“This bill would make it a felony for myself or faith-based migrant service providers to shelter, transport, and assist undocumented migrant workers,” said Emily Sinnwell, a nurse practitioner who runs the Iowa City Catholic Worker nonprofit that provides immigrant and refugee services.

Under the bill’s definition, a person commits the offense of smuggling if they use any sort of vehicle to transport an undocumented migrant with the intent to “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in the United States in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

In other words, if Sinnwell or someone in a similar position simply drove an undocumented worker to their job or to the hospital, they could be found guilty of violating the law.

During a Tuesday Iowa Senate subcommittee on the bill, Ver Yang, a longtime immigration attorney and director of Immigration Legal Services for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, noted a flaw in the smuggling provision that lawmakers may have missed.

“I want to make sure folks are understanding that there is a difference between—in the context of immigration law—smuggling and human trafficking,” she said. “Smuggling is the business of transporting individuals across an international border. And last I checked, Iowa is not a border state and smuggling does not involve coercion.” 

Yang explained the legal differences between smuggling and human trafficking.

“Human trafficking, by contrast, is involving coercion and does involve people who are being forced and defrauded into areas of sexual exploitation and labor exploitation and, unlike smuggling, human trafficking can occur without involving movement or transportation,” she said.

If one of the purposes of the bill is to cut down on trafficking, as some Republican House members said during that chamber’s debate on it, Yang said Iowa already has that law on the books and so does the federal government.

“This bill will be redundant,” Yang said. “We have state and federal laws that address and provide penalty for human trafficking instead of this bill’s language that is overly vague and broad and harmful.”

 Sinnwell said this legislation would not only negatively affect her work in taking care of Iowa’s “essential workers,” but it also contradicts “the religious freedom” bill House and Senate Republicans recently signed off on.

“This bill is causing a lot of chaos here,” she said. “HF 2608 is an anti-charity, anti-church attack on the call of the gospel to welcome the stranger, house the homeless, and serve the poor.”

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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