Column: Opposition to ‘sanctuary state’ law gains ground, but is it a pointless political ploy?

Sanctuary law opponents raise their hands at a Santa Clarita City Council meeting May 8, a week after the City Council of Costa Mesa voted to formally oppose the law.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The anti-sanctuary movement continues to burn through Southern California, as one city after another bucks Sacramento and sides with the Trump administration on the topic of illegal immigration.

But will any of the adopted resolutions make a difference in federal or state policy in the end, or is this just a lot of political theater and a waste of time in communities that have more important problems to address?

To answer the question, Costa Mesa City Councilman John Stephens walked into a coffee shop Tuesday morning in his hometown and dropped a 4-inch pile of legal documents on the table.


“Check this out,” Stephens, an attorney, said as he began to flip through his research on the federal government’s lawsuit against California for so-called sanctuary laws that offer some legal protections to people in the country illegally. Included in the stack were a Yale University Law and Policy Review on immigration enforcement and summaries of a U.S. Supreme Court case.

His conclusion?

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the City Council of Costa Mesa thinks about a constitutional issue in a pending federal court case,” Stephens said.

He was in the minority, however, when the City Council voted 3 to 2 last week, after a seven-hour meeting, to declare official opposition to Senate Bill 54. Also known as the California Values Act, SB 54 limits cooperation between local officials and federal agents in some cases when illegal immigrants are released from custody but not if those immigrants have committed serious crimes. The vote drew chants of “USA! USA!” from supporters in the audience, while dissenters groaned.

On Monday, I sent queries to all five council members to see if they were up for a chat about the significance of the city’s stand. Regardless of how anyone feels about illegal immigration, I thought Stephens made a good argument at last week’s meeting about there being no practical purpose to a resolution and saying it could backfire if the city loses influence with legislators who support SB 54.

Stephens and council member Katrina Foley, who also opposed the resolution, agreed to meet with me. I didn’t hear back from Mayor Sandy Genis and Councilman Jim Righeimer. The third member who voted for the resolution, Councilman Allan Mansoor, couldn’t make it but spoke to me later by phone.

Stephens said he respects differing views but didn’t see a good reason for Costa Mesa to get involved in a heated, polarizing national discussion. There is no evidence, to his knowledge, of an increase in the number of undocumented people living in Costa Mesa and no evidence of an uptick in crime related to such people. And he argued, as many law enforcement officials have, that there is a risk to public safety if undocumented residents fear cooperating with local police.

Stephens reached for the city’s 88-page staff report on SB 54 and turned to a memo from the Costa Mesa Police Department. The memo said that since SB 54 went into effect in January, “these new parameters have not substantially affected the Costa Mesa Police Department’s normal operational practices, nor have they impeded our ability to provide quality services to the community.”

The report said that on immigration holds and release dates, SB 54 had no impact because arrestees in Costa Mesa are generally processed and transported to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

“It’s a little bit ridiculous because we have so many things to address in our city, to spend 7 ½ hours on one item, which we’ve never done before,” Stephens said.

So why have public officials in Costa Mesa and elsewhere become amateur federal litigators when they’d be better off stepping up the pace on fixing streets, mowing park lawns and picking up the trash?

“It’s purely symbolic,” said Charis Kubrin, a UC Irvine professor of criminology, law and society. “I think it’s been a very effective move in some ways because the story has become how divided California is, when in fact it’s not.”

SB 54, Kubin said, was a response to increased attempts by the federal government to get local police more involved in enforcement of federal immigration law, despite reduced crime and immigration rates. It was needed, she argued, because having local cops do the work of feds “was ripping communities apart.”

Council member Foley, who, like Stephens, is an attorney, said many of the people who spoke out against SB 54 at the City Council meeting don’t live in Costa Mesa. Although some people have legitimate questions about the impact of illegal immigration, she said, others are exploiting — in the darkest way — a political opportunity created by President Trump.

“Two moms who spoke at that meeting … were terrified by the issue, and when they were speaking, people were yelling at them, ‘We’re gonna get ICE.’ ‘Go back to Mexico.’ ‘Get out of here.’ These are [agitators] who don’t even live in our city,” Foley said. “And one of the women was born and raised here and the other has lived here for decades. It hurts.”

Foley said in Costa Mesa, and elsewhere, these flare-ups over immigration are all about politics.

“This is just a Republican stunt to activate the core base. That’s all it is,” she said.

Hard to argue with that, but California’s left knows a few tricks too, and the sometimes sanctimonious sanctuary movement certainly plays to the base. And as Democrats try to flip congressional seats their way, any principled foe of illegal immigration runs the risk of being branded just another Trump stooge.

What bugs me about the resolutionary movement is that there’s no need for it other than to fan the flames. Council races in Costa Mesa and other towns and cities are nonpartisan. Fix the streets, upgrade the sewage treatment plant, do something about real crime rather than rant about imaginary threats.

Foley is a Democrat and Mansoor is a Republican, and they both want to be mayor. She thinks his tough stand on immigration is an attempt to give himself an edge, although the former sheriff’s deputy has always been outspoken on the subject.

When Mansoor and I talked by phone, he had a different take on why Costa Mesa took up SB 54.

“A resolution is a statement,” he said, even if, like Costa Mesa’s, it’s nonbinding. He said he would have supported an even stronger stand, like joining a lawsuit against the state.

But if a resolution is nothing but a statement, who’s it for, and what does it communicate?

“That we support upholding our laws,” Mansoor said. “It’s a statement to the Legislature, to the governor, to the citizens who live in our community.”

Statement delivered, fears stirred, time wasted.

Another angry cry, and no one the better for it.

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