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California: The Golden State Becomes a "Sanctuary State"

Against the Federal Grain

Of the emergent issues since the presidential campaign of 2016, the status of so-called sanctuary cities are among some of the most politically volatile. It is also a term that has no real concrete definition, and may mean something slightly different from one pundit to the next. For conservatives, a sanctuary city is a lawless haven for alien criminals. For progressives, they are a security for public safety and human rights against federal overreach.

What is a sanctuary city? The simplest way of putting it may just be to say that the label pertains to municipalities that limit their cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The agency, for example, asks departments throughout the United States to detain non-citizens in jail for up to an additional forty-eight hours after their scheduled release so that ICE officers may come and observe whether these inmates have broken immigration laws and, therefore, could be deported. Many localities honor these requests. Some do not.

For those cities that do limit their cooperation with ICE, the federal government under the new administration has threatened punitive measures such as withholding federal funding to bring them in line with the new regime. Many have remained adamant, citing such things as the public safety and the need for non-citizens to be able to trust their local law enforcement. As much as some anti-immigration advocates decry, the courts have found that, of course, these cities are not breaking any laws and punishing them may run against the constitution. However, this has not deterred a continuous lambaste of these sanctuaries and the officials that support them.

Now California has taken it one step further, as Governor Jerry Brown has just made it the nation's first sanctuary state. 

California Becomes First Sanctuary State

The Sanctuary State of 2018

Signed in October, SB 54 is now in effect as of January 1st, 2018. SB 54 is the legislation defining California's new status, and there are many fine details as to what direction the nation's most populous state will be taking with regards to its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.

It is believed that there are as many as 10 million immigrants living in California, twenty-five percent of whom are undocumented. 

“These are uncertain times for undocumented Californians and their families, and this bill strikes a balance that will protect public safety, while bringing a measure of comfort to those families who are now living in fear every day,” Governor Brown has stated after signing the bill. SB 54's author, Senate Leader Kevin de Leon, has described it as a measure of safety that encourages undocumented immigrants to continue to report crimes to law enforcement and engage in activities such as sending their children to school.

Other resistant states have built upon laws protecting their immigrant constituents as well, but California's is now regarded as the nation's most comprehensive. It's prescriptions include the establishing of "safe zones" in schools, courthouses and hospitals, where ICE may not search or question individuals as to their status, and the restricting of regular law enforcement from maintaining holds on individuals in custody on ICE's behalf. It also blocks the deputation of police as immigration agents and clamps down on non-federal law enforcement's abilities to question individuals as to their immigration status.

While this does not wholly do away with federal immigration agents abilities to operate in the state, it will make it much more difficult and add a strain upon their resources. Federal agents may still interview individuals in custody and will continue to be allowed to access databases for immigration enforcement. State and local law enforcement may also continue to participate in joint task forces with federal immigration agencies.

Furthermore, in order to assuage some concerns about the bill given by groups such as the California State Sheriffs' Association, Governor Brown facilitated some modifications allowing cooperation with ICE and other agencies in crimes of a certain severity.

Still, the bill has drawn much ire from those whose rhetoric condemns the existence of such cities. Others, however, celebrate the scale of such a victory for the rights of non-citizens, as well as the benefits such policies are meant to bring to public safety. 

Brace for Impact

California and Governor Brown have solicited an unsurprisingly furious response from the Trump Administration, and it is very possible that it will attempt to withhold federal funding if the state doesn't step back in line. 

If this proves to be the case, California will surely battle it legally, and the courts will be forced to intervene. However, this is nothing new to California, as it has already sued the federal government under President Trump over a myriad of issues from standards pertaining to energy efficiency and environmental regulation to DACA, a program that protects immigrants that were brought into the country as children. 

While an intense fight may be coming, this has not deterred elation from many whose lives have been relieved of a great and taxing burden. At a news conference with Leon last year, Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, a mother who had once been detained while taking her daughters to school, delivered a cathartic reflection on the bill's promises and the "tranquility" it will bring to communities.

"We're gonna be able to take our kids to school, go visit the doctor, go to courts, with the confidence that we won't be detained," she stated.