On Saturday night, residents of Oakland received an urgent message from Mayor Libby Schaaf.
Schaaf said she had heard from multiple sources that immigration agents would be conducting enforcement operations “starting as soon as within the next 24 hours” and urged those here illegally to take precautions.
The message stunned many. On Monday, some of that surprise turned to confusion and anger as large-scale immigration sweeps did not materialize.
Schaaf’s action has sparked debate about what role politicians and city governments should play in spreading information — both confirmed and unconfirmed — about possible federal immigration sweeps.
Like many California cities, Oakland has declared itself a sanctuary for those here illegally, and officials there have vowed to fight President Trump’s promised immigration crackdown. Tensions have heightened in recent weeks as administration officials have talked about targeting California for increased immigration enforcement. Trump last week also said he was thinking of withdrawing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from the state, predicting it could cause a wave of crime.
While Schaaf said she was trying to help those who might be arrested, some advocates said it had a different impact.
“The main reaction that people have had has been fear, unfortunately,” said Eleni Wolfe, immigration program director at Centro Legal de la Raza, an Oakland-based advocacy group. “It’s terrifying to hear about the potential of increased enforcement action, and unfortunately that’s the main message that they heard.”
Across California, leaders said they find themselves in a difficult position as they fight federal law enforcement actions. Typically, they said, local and federal officials work in concert. But on immigration, they are at odds.
“Broad pronouncements about raids in a city and across a region generate an enormous amount of fear and…generally don’t help families understand exactly what they need to do to protect themselves and their loves ones,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said.
On the other hand, the former prosecutor said, providing specific information about how, when and where ICE might be engaged could lead to charges of obstruction of justice.
“I think every local leader is walking a tightrope trying to ensure that residents are well informed within the bounds of the law,” he said.
Liccardo said he exchanged text messages with Schaaf over the weekend regarding the possible immigration sweeps. A few hours after she issued her statement, he issued one of his own — explaining that while his office had been unable to confirm rumors of imminent raids, San Jose’s immigrant residents should know that “we have your back.”
The statement included the phone number for a hotline to report ICE activity and links to legal resources.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Monday that he personally has not known about pending ICE sweeps — and believes that is a problem when it comes to the Los Angeles Police Department. He said it’s important for local law enforcement to be aware of the raids because “oftentimes there is support that is needed if situations turn bad.”
“I’ve always said to our federal law enforcement officials, you need local law enforcement,” Garcetti said. “You can’t ignore or disregard or — as we’re seeing from our commander-in-chief — defund and disparage our local law enforcement.”
Garcetti said that while he supports Schaaf, he was unsure how he would react if he had information about pending ICE enforcement.
“It’s a hypothetical. I haven’t gotten that. To me, it’s very important to know the particulars of situations. And I’m not going to give a heads-up to people who are the traffickers of women that there is going to be a raid on them. It depends on the situation.”
Garcetti said Los Angeles police will continue to work with federal officials to go after gangs and human traffickers.
“That’s important work to do. But the indiscriminate ICE raids, like 7-Eleven raids and things like that? When we have dangerous criminals, why would we use resources to go after 7-Eleven clerks?” Garcetti said.
Tony Bell, spokesman for Republican Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, said elected officials shouldn’t create "hysteria or panic.”
"A better approach would be to provide information about their rights and available resources,” Bell said.
Others were quick to defend Schaaf.
“In this particular case, in this day and time, we need to tell people that they got to keep their families whole,” Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) said. “That’s what it really comes down to.”
ICE officials did not respond to a question about whether a Bay Area operation had been planned this weekend. In a statement, ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said only that immigration agents “conduct targeted enforcement operations on a daily basis in Northern California and across the nation.”
She said that while agents focus on “individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security,” others who do not fall into those categories are also arrested and deported.
Haley noted, as ICE officials have in the past, that cities that consider themselves sanctuaries, like Oakland, face an increase in “arrests in the community.”
“While the vast majority of cities in America do cooperate with ICE, others force ICE to assign additional resources to conduct at-large arrests in the community, putting officers, the general public and the aliens at greater risk and increasing the incidence of collateral arrests,” she said.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for stricter immigration enforcement, echoed that statement, saying it was the policies of sanctuary cities that are “creating the need for ICE to go into these communities.”
Schaaf’s statement, he said, was “a deliberate move to create a sense of hysteria,” he said.
Most elected officials in California seem to think that “any form of immigration law is somewhat draconian,” Mehlman said.
A coalition of immigrant advocates said it had confirmed a number of ICE arrests throughout Northern California on Sunday, including "five arrests in Merced County, two arrests each in Contra Costa and Sacramento counties, and one each in Monterey and Napa counties."
Maricela Gutierrez, executive director of the Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network in San Jose, said her organization received dozens of calls from people concerned about the potential for raids after the mayor issued her statement.
On Sunday morning, the group sent “know your rights” information by text to thousands of subscribers to its “rapid response network,” which serves to inform people about ICE activity and their legal rights.
They also alerted hundreds of advocates who have been trained as legal observers to be on standby.
Gutierrez said she is happy to see city leaders warning residents about pending ICE actions, as long as those warnings come with offers to help.
“Any announcement like that, when you hear families might be separated, is going to cause anxiety and panic. But if you follow that up with a lot of information and resources it reduces that fear and panic,” she said.
Schaaf’s warning also allowed advocates to organize in anticipation of ICE operations, “people were having calls, there were emails going on. People were on high alert,” Gutierrez said.
Schaaf faced a sea of angry calls over her message. In a news conference on Sunday, she said her “priority is to keep this community safe.”
“It is not my wish to panic people but to ensure that they are prepared with information. That they know their rights as well as their responsibilities and know about the resources that this community offers,” she said.
Schaaf said she weighed whether to issue the release because in the past, rumors about immigration enforcement activities have caused widespread panic in immigrant communities.
“Spreading rumors of ICE activities has been used as a tactic to strike fear and paralysis in the immigrant communities,” she said. “This is something I thought about very carefully before bringing this information forward; but due to the reliability of my sources and the fact that I received this from multiple sources, I felt that it was my duty to share the information.”