Column: Pro- and anti-Trump forces score points on immigration, but both sides are losing

People opposing SB-54 celebrate. The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to condemn the state's sanctuary laws.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to illegal immigration, California is no longer at war with a single foe — the Trump administration.

It’s now officially at war with itself.

One Southern California town after another has followed the lead of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and voted to side with President Trump in opposing state “sanctuary” laws that offer some protections for people in the country illegally.

On Monday night, Upland and Yucaipa joined the Red City Uprising and fell into line with Dana Point, Huntington Beach, Yorba Linda, Westminster, Newport Beach, San Juan Capistrano and other towns.


A San Clemente teacher named Donna went to the Dana Point City Council meeting last week, along with her husband, to speak in favor of sanctuary protections. She told me she was cursed at, threatened by Trump supporters including members of a traveling circus called the Patriot Movement AZ, and was escorted to her car by police. She asked me not to use her last name because she’s still trembling about the level of vitriol.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Kevin de Leon, an L.A. Democrat who wrote one of the sanctuary bills targeted in a Trump administration lawsuit, shot back against those “pushing a racist and anti-immigrant agenda.”

No doubt, more than a few bigots are lathered up and on the march, their batteries charged by Trump.

But others have fair questions about the cost of illegal immigration when it comes to healthcare, education, incarceration and other public services. Others don’t understand why, under any circumstances, state and local governments would not cooperate fully with federal agents regarding people in the country illegally.

These folks do not like being called racists, and their heads explode when the left refuses to distinguish between immigration and illegal immigration.

And so it goes, with rumbling here and there and noxious gases rising from a political/cultural fracture that runs as deep as the San Andreas.


Sanctuary laws are a political creation as much as a practical one, and could be dumped by the Supreme Court — which will set off cheers in some quarters. But I have a feeling there are no winners here, and that neither side is accomplishing much, other than to radicalize political foes and crush any possibility of useful dialogue or compromise.

Mike Madrid, a longtime GOP consultant in California, packed this up rather neatly.

“Politicians are more interested in having a problem than finding a solution,” he said. “When they’re invested in the problem, it perpetuates the idea of them as leaders in this cultural war.”

Well put, and Exhibit A is guess who.

Illegal immigration was the stepladder Donald Trump stood on two years ago, when he promised to round up and boot illegals back to where they came from.

Here’s the thing:

I know where they are. You know where they are. We all know where they are.

Is Trump the only guy in America who doesn’t know where they are?

People in the country without papers can be found working at hotels and restaurants and in the fields, if they’re not at your house putting the baby to sleep or trimming the hedge.

Sure, arrests are up sharply since Trump took office. But it doesn’t seem like his heart is really in it. Federal agents nab one person in Lincoln Heights or Delano or some other place, giving chase if necessary, while thousands of others duck briefly, then go about their business.

But what’s the point?

If it’s to discourage more people from crossing the border, that trend had already begun as birth rates dropped and the Mexican economy improved.

If Trump is serious, why haven’t battalions of agents parachuted onto California farmland and done the job he promised?

Let me throw out a couple of possibilities.

Maybe Trump understands the economic disruption that would cause, particularly to farmers who voted for him, so the whole thing is a charade.

Or maybe his only goal is to keep his legions cheering, and that’s as simple as making a few high-profile arrests here and there, aiming his cannons at all of us horrible people in crazy California, and babbling on about his border wall.

It seems to be working in lots of Southern California communities, even though despite all the puffing about gang members in our attics and criminals at the door, sanctuary laws do not protect those who have committed serious offenses.

Wayne Cornelius, UC San Diego professor emeritus who has studied immigration for decades, said there is no correlation between sanctuary cities and crime rates. The fastest-growing category of immigration arrests, he added, involve those who have not committed serious crimes.

“Trump is throwing red meat to the nativist portion of his base, without seriously disrupting the economy,” Cornelius said. “It’s a political shell game. Leave the vast majority of employers alone, but terrorize their workers, families and communities.”

Fred Smoller, who teaches political science at Chapman University, said Orange County officials who took a stand against sanctuary laws may have connected with conservative GOP leaders and “a declining group of Republican voters.”

But Smoller said their votes were out of touch with political changes in a county won in 2016 by Hillary Clinton, not Trump, and where congressional seats held by Republicans may get flipped.

“The 65-year-old white male … is being replaced by younger voters who are more tolerant, more Latino and more Asian,” he said.

A wise person looks sideways at any poll results, but early this month Smoller released a survey that showed a 37% Orange County approval rating for Trump. Also, 71% believe growing diversity in Orange County will be a strength, 83% favored a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and 78% support protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

I didn’t conduct a poll, but I’m betting you’d get a lot of shrugs if you asked people to explain what sanctuary policies are and whether they’re a good thing, a bad thing or just another incendiary political device.

“The right continues to use the immigration issue to stoke xenophobic fears, and fears of a changing America and the loss of identity,” said Madrid, the GOP consultant. “And the left continues to basically pursue whatever de facto open border policy they can, with neither side outlining the necessary steps on immigration reform. And it’s not that complicated, by the way.”

OK then, what would he do?

Madrid cited three points that he said have strong bipartisan support, based on polling.

First, a deal on a pathway to legal status for people in the country illegally, if they haven’t committed crimes.

Second, stricter border enforcement, which would be easier to accomplish if instead of spending billions on a wall, the investment were in more agents and technology.

Third, faster and more orderly processing of visas for those whose low-skilled or high-skilled labor is needed in the U.S. on a temporary or permanent basis, and greater support for economic development in Mexico so that fewer people choose to come north.

This gets my vote, but what chance is there when compromise is seen as capitulation, and both sides are too invested in the war?

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez