On January 1, California became a sanctuary state. Remember when Republicans used to (pretend to) love shifting power from the federal to state governments? They don’t seem to like this particular shift too much. Governor Jerry Brown, however, had already made clear last March that he wouldn’t be bullied by the Trump Administration over immigration policy. When asked about Trump’s threats to pull funding if a sanctuary law was passed, Brown referred to the Constitution: "We do have something called the ninth and the 10th amendment.” He also offered a more gut-level comeback: “You don't want to mess with California.”
On its website, Fox News covered the law taking effect by highlighting the lies an opponent planted right into the ground on the side of the highway (Fox referred to it as “a rebuttal from an unidentified source”):
I’ll discuss what the law actually does below—let’s start by noting that it has nothing at all to do with undocumented immigrants voting—but the sign really says it all about the right-wing reaction. This is the same kind of race-baiting and fearmongering—right down to the mention of the MS-13 gang—that Mr. 46 Percent of the Popular Vote himself deployed in the Virginia governor’s race, and which Republicans used (without success, thankfully) in other races such as ones on Long Island, in New Jersey, in upstate New York, and all over the country last November.
In addition to lies on highway signs, the new California law brought condemnations, threats and lies from more official—albeit no less irresponsible—corners. Thomas Homan is the acting head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency—and is Trump’s choice to be its permanent chief. Apparently, Homan wants to charge elected officials who disagree with him on the matter of immigration enforcement with crimes. He has argued that, by supporting sanctuary laws, these leaders have committed a crime because they are “knowingly shield[ing] and harbor[ing] an illegal alien.” Homan added: “we’ve got to start charging some of these politicians with crimes.” Talk about criminalizing political differences. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg responded to Homan’s threat: “You know where to find me.” That response was, to quote the highly regarded California philosopher Jeff Spicoli, “Awesome, totally awesome.”
Homan must fit right into a White House run by a would-be authoritarian whose campaign promised to “lock her up” and who has, since taking office, repeatedly sought to weaponize the Department of Justice, including just this past week.
Going back to the Golden State, Homan slammed its new law specifically: “More citizens are going to die because of these policies.” He either doesn’t understand what California’s law does, or he’s just lying about it to play to the nativist base of the popular vote loser to whom he answers. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also offered criticism laced with the same kind of falsehoods last fall, when the bill was under discussion in the California legislature. Here’s the reality of what the law does:
Under the law, state and local agencies would not be able to detain immigrants for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement based on “hold” requests, something many departments already stopped doing after a 2014 court ruling.
But the electronic fingerprint records for all offenders booked into state prisons and local jails would continue going to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
Police and sheriffs would also be able to continue sharing inmates’ release dates and transferring people to immigration authorities if they have been convicted within the last 15 years of one of roughly 800 offenses outlined in the Trust Act. That California law prohibits state and local law enforcement from holding people past their release dates for federal immigration agents unless they’ve been convicted of certain crimes.
To clarify, “certain crimes” includes: “all serious and violent crimes, registered sex and arson offenses, domestic violence charges and other felonies,” as well a large number of nonviolent crimes and others that, depending on the circumstances, might be either misdemeanors or felonies. So the law does not prevent California authorities from coordinating with ICE when releasing violent criminals, i.e. the actual “bad hombres” Trump loves to talk about.
Sanctuary policies have strong support among actual law enforcement officials all over the country, the people who work in communities on a daily basis—unlike Homan and Sessions, let alone Trump. Chris Magnus, chief of police for sanctuary city Tucson, Arizona, wrote:
If people are afraid of the police, if they fear they may become separated from their families or harshly interrogated based on their immigration status, they won’t report crimes or come forward as witnesses.
When crime victims and witnesses are unwilling to testify because they’re afraid an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent will be waiting to arrest them at the courtroom doors, real criminals go unpunished. It means drug dealers and people who commit domestic and sexual violence are free to exploit a voiceless class of victims; such criminals become a threat to us all.
It’s a simple formula. When crimes go unreported and unsolved, criminals are empowered.
Police chiefs from the largest cities in Texas came together to offer a similar take on the matter:
Broad mandates...requiring local law enforcement to take a more active role in immigration enforcement will further strain the relationship between local law enforcement and the diverse communities we serve. Officers will start inquiring about the immigration status of every person they come in contact with, or worse, only inquire about the immigration status of individuals based on their appearance.
This will lead to distrust of police, less cooperation from members of the community and will foster the belief that they cannot seek assistance from police for fear of being subjected to an immigration status investigation.
Distrust and fear of contacting or assisting the police has already become evident among legal immigrants as well. Legal immigrants are beginning to avoid contact with the police for fear that they or undocumented family members or friends may become subject to immigration enforcement. Such a divide between the local police and immigrant groups will result in increased crime against immigrants and in the broader community, create a class of silent victims, and eliminate the potential for assistance from immigrants in solving crimes or preventing crime.
Conservatives always cite the case of Kate Steinle as evidence that sanctuary policies make residents less safe. In 2016, Steinle was killed when Jose Inez Garcia Zarate, an undocumented person, fired a gun and the bullet ricocheted off the ground and struck her. Zarate had been released in 2015 by local authorities in San Francisco—to whom the feds had transferred him to prosecute a drug-related charge. ICE had wanted to deport him, but wasn’t notified of his release. The federal and local authorities each blame the other, and policies have since changed in order to prevent future miscommunication. Zarate had been deported multiple times, and had been convicted in the past on drug-related charges. None of them, however, were violent crimes. Nevertheless, this terrible tragedy has, unsurprisingly, been exploited by Trump and his allies both before and since he became president to criticize those who support sanctuary policies.
What conservatives don’t talk about is how sanctuary policies also work to make people safer for exactly the reasons Chief Magnus and the Texas police chiefs discussed. Let’s stick with Magnus’s city of Tucson, from which here’s just one representative example:
In Tucson, for example, an undocumented man confronted and physically struggled with a man who tried to steal a car with children inside. The immigrant held the criminal long enough for local police to arrive, then cooperated with detectives in the follow-up investigation. As a result, the suspect was charged with kidnapping, auto theft and burglary.
Individual cases aside, the truth about immigrants, sanctuary cities and crime is not what Donald Trump would have you believe. First of all, immigrants—both documented and undocumented—commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans. When you exclude those held in custody for immigration-related offenses (i.e., being here without proper documentation), the incarceration rate for documented (0.47 percent) and undocumented (0.50 percent) immigrants is essentially the same, and stands at one-third the rate for the native born (1.53 percent).
Second, on sanctuary cities specifically, a peer-reviewed study that examined multiple years of data stated: “Our findings provide evidence that sanctuary policies have no effect on crime rates, despite narratives to the contrary.” This didn’t stop Jeff Sessions from saying that this study proved the exact opposite. It’s not a lie, just an “alternative fact.”
And really, that’s what this whole issue comes down to. Those who support sanctuary cities cite facts about crime, and make policy decisions based on their judgment that it is a mistake for local authorities to enforce federal immigration policy when it comes to those charged with or convicted of nonviolent crimes. Opponents of sanctuary policies make up lies, ignore police chiefs and try to scare Americans about brown criminal hordes supposedly swarming across the border. We as a people have to decide which group we want in charge.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).
PS-Here’s video of me from earlier in the week debating this issue on cable news.