INDIANAPOLIS — U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Brownsburg, declared in a Twitter post Friday that Gary is a "sanctuary city," and he accused Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of ignoring state and federal law to "harbor illegal immigrant criminals."

The four-term congressman, originally from Munster, is vying for Indiana's Republican U.S. Senate nomination. He provided no justification for his claims beyond a link to a news article detailing Gary's defense of its "welcoming city" ordinance in a lawsuit filed last year by a conservative attorney who has previously donated to Rokita's campaigns.

That attorney, James Bopp Jr., of Terre Haute, alleges the 2017 Gary ordinance runs afoul of a 2011 Indiana law prohibiting sanctuary cities by mandating that local officials cooperate with federal authorities enforcing the nation's immigration laws.

The city said in its reply brief, filed Wednesday, that while it exercises its "home rule" right not to look into the immigration status of individuals interacting with city employees, particularly police officers, it has not declared itself a sanctuary city and also never has failed to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

A hearing in the case is set for 11 a.m. March 14 at Lake Superior Courtroom 5 in Hammond.

Rokita, who is an attorney, did not return a telephone message left at his Washington, D.C., office seeking to clarify why he contends Gary is a sanctuary city while a lawsuit is pending that will answer that exact question.

He also did not respond to a request to provide evidence that Gary is harboring "illegal immigrant criminals."

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In fact, the city-owned Gary/Chicago International Airport repeatedly has been used by federal authorities to deport immigrants living in the country without legal permission while Gary police prevented protesters from disrupting those flights.

Freeman-Wilson, who previously served as Indiana's attorney general, said she was "perplexed" by Rokita's tweet since he told her last month that he wouldn't be focusing on Gary in his legislative efforts opposing sanctuary cities.

"I told him that I was confident of that because Gary is not a sanctuary but a welcoming community," Freeman-Wilson said. "I also went on to explain our ordinance and my position in detail.

"Perhaps he has forgotten in the heat of the campaign."

Rokita repeatedly has emphasized immigration issues, as well as his loyalty to President Donald Trump, as he tries to win support from Indiana voters in a three-way race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

In his first television ad, released this week, Rokita accuses "liberal elites" of supporting "open borders" and "amnesty," while he pledges to "build the wall" and "make English our official language."

He's also filed legislation, dubbed the Stopping Lawless Actions of Politicians (SLAP) Act, that would remove from office and imprison for five years any state or local government official who fails to transfer to the federal government custody of any person accused of an immigration violation.

The House Judiciary Committee has yet to act on that proposal.

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