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California poised to become 'sanctuary' state. But do such policies work?

political values

The California Assembly is expected to pass State Bill 54, which would take statewide 'sanctuary' policies on immigrants who are in the US illegally. As loud as the calls for and against these laws have become, hard data on the impact they've had at the local level is still scarce.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks as San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera (r.) listens during a press conference at San Francisco City Hall Aug. 14. The state of California and city of San Francisco are suing the US Department of Justice over President Trump's sanctuary city restrictions on public safety grants.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
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California is one step closer to calling itself a “sanctuary state.”

On Monday Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and state Senate leader Kevin De León struck a deal on Senate Bill 54, or the California Values Act, making the state potentially the next in the nation to limit state and local law enforcement’s ability to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Only Oregon has a similar law, which it passed in 1987 – though some have called Illinois’ newly signed TRUST Act a sanctuary state measure. New Mexico and Colorado also have comparable proposals pending in their respective legislatures.

The move to take sanctuary policies statewide comes in a year in which the Trump administration has vowed to take action against cities and counties that have adopted measures to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation. More than 500 jurisdictions now have some form of sanctuary policy in the books. The trend has prompted backlash from the Department of Justice and some police departments, which say that such policies make it more difficult for law enforcement to maintain public safety.

“We believe that it is in everyone’s best interest to have [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] remove dangerous and violent criminals because the people they prey on are disproportionately the immigrant community itself,” says Bill Brown, sheriff of Santa Barbara County and president of the California Sheriffs’ Association. 

One state legislature, Texas, has passed a law making sanctuary policies illegal – and is being sued by its cities in court.  

The dome of the California state Capitol glows in the early evening in Sacramento.
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California lawmakers, meanwhile, are poised to go the other way. Advocates say that sanctuary laws are necessary to shelter immigrant communities from harsh federal actors and build trust between immigrants and the agencies sworn to protect and serve them.  

The debate has grown increasingly shrill as states and cities play a tug-of-war between enacting sanctuary policies and banning them. And yet, what do we actually know about how sanctuary ordinances affect immigrant communities and their relationships with law enforcement?

As loud as the calls for and against these laws have become, hard data on the impact they’ve had at the local level is still scarce. The basis for these laws have for the most part been a combination of research that shows community policing is a more effective way of keeping cities safe than punitive actions alone, as well as anecdotes from local immigrant families.

“It would suggest that sanctuary policies are going to be very beneficial to Latinos and people from other ethnic and immigrant communities. But we don’t know that for sure,” says Loren Collingwood, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, and co-author of a 2016 report on the relationship between sanctuary laws and crime. “To use anecdotes as a basis for policy, even though there’s a big history of it here in the United States, is not wise.”

Limited evidence

The idea that the foundation of public safety is trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve has been around since the 1970s. Local agencies at the time began using less stringent approaches to maintaining law and order and shifted to strategies that had officers treating local residents as partners in keeping the peace. In 1994, the federal government passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which created the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).

The generally accepted notion of “sanctuary,” analysts say, suggests that the same philosophy could, and should, extend to immigrant communities. At the heart of the sanctuary policy, they say, is a clear division of labor between local law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“These trust policies are put in place to ensure there’s cooperation,” says Larry Benenson, assistant director for immigration policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum. “If you have a conflation of local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities – if there’s even a belief that reporting a crime could lead to you being deported, or even if somebody is a legal resident but if a friend, loved one, or family member could potentially get caught up – you’re not going to cooperate [with the police].”

Protesters hold signs as they listen to speakers at a rally outside of City Hall in San Francisco on Jan. 25 in support of statewide sanctuary for people living illegally in the US.
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But the term “sanctuary” itself is problematic, he says, because it doesn’t refer to any federally defined jurisdiction. Federal law applies everywhere, and even localities that have “sanctuary” laws generally abide by them.

“The whole fight has gotten very political and not very constructive,” he says.

Another issue is that the policies as they are today emerged only around 2014, following the murder of Kathryn Steinle by an undocumented man in San Francisco and picking up steam immediately before and after President Trump’s election. That relatively short lifespan means the jury is still out on their quantifiable impact. The studies that do exist suggest some positive effects: One report, released in January, found that sanctuary counties have lower crime rates and stronger economies than comparable non-sanctuary jurisdictions. Professor Collingwood’s study at UC Riverside, which compared cities instead of counties, found no statistically significant difference in crime between those with sanctuary ordinances and those without – which suggests that there’s no evidence that enacting them would make cities less safe, he says.  

'The vast majority have no teeth'

In general, advocates and opponents alike say that local sanctuary ordinances have been more a symbol of where officials stand than true game-changers in the struggle over immigration reform.

Except for those in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, none of the ordinances already in place in California have specifically precluded local law enforcement from communicating with federal authorities, Sheriff Brown says. 

“The vast majority have no teeth,” adds Joseph Mckellar, co-director of PICO California, a faith-based community organization that has lobbied for measures to protect undocumented immigrants over the years.

On the one hand, symbols matter, Mr. Mckellar says. True to the president’s campaign promises, the Trump administration has cracked down on illegal immigration. ICE arrests have spiked to an average of about 13,000 per month between February and June, compared with about 9,100 per month in the last three months of former President Barack Obama’s term, USA Today reports. On Sept. 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Homeland Security will no longer be taking new applicants for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which kept nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children from deportation. Current DACA authorizations will remain valid only until the end of their two-year lifespans, though Trump has given Congress six months to pass legislation that would provide these immigrants with a path to legal status. On Monday, California filed suit against the administration

Such actions have created a climate of fear in undocumented immigrant communities, with families afraid to let their children out of the house and parents getting picked up by ICE at county jails after serving time for unrelated petty crimes. So when the mayor, the police department, and the local school district declare their jurisdictions sanctuaries in a place like Oakland – which is within nonsanctuary Alameda County – some of that fear is dispelled, advocates say.

“The day before the first day of school, we received a call from the superintendent [of the Oakland Unified School District] reminding us that we are a sanctuary district,” says Marina, a mother and local organizer with Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) who arrived with her family in the US from Guatemala seven years ago. (She asked that her last name not be used because she works with undocumented families.) “That made us feel a lot calmer.”

Yet it’s precisely because these ordinances are largely symbolic that state legislation is so crucial, Mckellar says. “They give people a sense of hope,” he says. “But hope alone can’t stop a local law enforcement officer from handing over a person to ICE.” He calls for “tangible policies” like S.B. 54 to limit coordination between police and ICE.

'It's dangerous ground'

To critics of the bill, taking sanctuary to the state level runs the risk of doing what by and large local policies don’t yet do: prevent local law enforcement from cooperating with the feds, especially in investigations that involve transnational crimes like human or drug trafficking. They also point out that limiting cooperation with ICE won’t stop the federal agency from tracking down and arresting suspected undocumented immigrants.

“There will be confrontations that could risk other undocumented but otherwise law-abiding people who could end up getting picked up collaterally,” Brown says. “It’s dangerous ground to tread on.”

Despite the wrangling over the bill, California’s Democrat-led Legislature looks likely to send S.B. 54 to the governor’s desk before Sept. 15, when the session ends. Mr. Brown would then have a month to sign the measure.

But the dispute highlights the problems with a debate that centers more on politics than fact, critics note. For good policy to prevail, Benenson and others say more data and cool heads need to run the show.

“Rather than use ‘sanctuary city’ as both a catch-all and a scapegoat, Congress should make a good-faith effort to clarify immigration enforcement responsibilities,” writes Benenson in a July blog post for the National Immigration Forum. “Rather than a political firestorm … we need cooperation that demonizes no one and at the same time makes all of us safer.”

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