Here’s why law enforcement groups are divided on legislation to turn California into a ‘sanctuary state’

An Orange County sheriff's deputy watches over a group of detained immigrants in the medical and dental care area at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones says he does not want his deputies to enforce immigration laws. But he is worried about a bill that seeks to turn California into a so-called sanctuary state.

At a news conference last week at the state Capitol, led by Republican lawmakers, he slammed the state Senate legislation, which would ban law enforcement agencies like his from using resources to enforce federal immigration laws.

“If [Senate Bill] 54 passes, it will allow dangerous, violent career criminals to slip through the cracks and be released back into our communities,” Jones said, standing next to a photo of a young man killed by a drunk driver who was in the U.S. illegally.


Sheriffs across the state have echoed Jones’ opinions on the proposal. Some stand to lose millions of dollars in federal contracts to house immigrant detainees. But for other law enforcement agencies and associations, taking an official position has been far more complicated. They have found themselves torn on whether its provisions would help or harm public safety.

University and city police chiefs say they don’t want to become embroiled in a political debate over immigration, or damage hard-earned trust in vulnerable communities where they need immigrants to come forward as crime victims and witnesses. And yet, some law enforcement officials say, the legislation as written could make their jobs harder by restricting the sharing of information and officers in joint investigations.

The proposal, introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), would prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies, including school police and security, from using resources to investigate, detain, report or arrest people for immigration enforcement. Within three months of its enactment, the state Department of Justice would publish policies on the limits in assistance to federal officials.

The legislation also aims to protect immigrants’ personal data, requiring state agencies to ensure that they are only collecting necessary information.

De León introduced the bill in response to President Trump’s executive orders on immigration, one of which pledged to cut federal dollars from so-called sanctuary cities where policies limit the cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

The Senate leader has said his effort builds on the California Trust Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2013, which prevents law enforcement agencies from detaining immigrants longer than necessary for minor crimes, thereby helping federal immigration authorities take them into custody.


The bill, set for another legislative hearing Monday, has drawn a long list of supporters. Among them are city officials from sanctuary cities like Santa Ana and Berkeley, immigrant advocates and Democratic lawmakers, who point to low crime rates in immigrant communities. They are urging opponents of the bill to move away from Trump’s rhetoric, which they say stereotypes immigrants as criminals.

At least one law enforcement association — the California College and University Police Chiefs Assn., whose members protect 3 million students and school employees across the state — has supported the bill from the beginning.

“It is just axiomatic that if you intertwine immigration enforcement with front-line law enforcement, front-line law enforcement will suffer,” lobbyist John Lovell, who represents the organization, said at the bill’s first hearing in January. “Less people will come forward, and that is particularly aggravating for us in a campus situation.”

But some law enforcement officials are concerned the limits on collaboration with federal immigration officials would negatively affect county jail budgets, hurt investigations involving policing departments at different levels of government and limit deputies from alerting federal authorities about the release dates of inmates who could be a danger to the public.

To address some of their concerns, De León has added new amendments that would allow local and state officers to participate in task forces, which can include investigators with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, so as long as their main purpose is not immigration enforcement.


Additions to the bill also would require the state parole board or state corrections department to give the FBI a 60-day advance notice of the release date of certain inmates who are in the U.S. illegally. Sheriffs would be able to provide the agency with the scheduled release date of anyone confined in county jail for a misdemeanor offense who also has a violent felony conviction.

After the changes, Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), a 30-year law enforcement veteran and former captain of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, has since agreed to sign on as a principal co-author of the legislation.

Jennie Pasquarella, the immigrants’ rights director with the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said the amendments should be enough to assuage law enforcement concerns, as release information on all state and federal offenders is already publicly available.

“The job of law enforcement in California is to enforce our criminal laws, and this bill is all about making that crystal clear,” she said. “We are not trying to get in the way of the federal government.”

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But sheriffs say the changes don’t address their concerns about requests for release notifications from federal immigration officials, or the potential loss of federal funding in counties that lease space to federal immigration agencies for detainees.


“When it comes to use of our jails and prior expectations of communication, this bill precludes that, and that is a public safety problem,” said Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs’ Assn.

City police chiefs are in a tighter spot. Many law enforcement agencies, including those in Los Angeles, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties, adopted policies similar to the Trust Act before it went into the effect. Many now operate in self-proclaimed sanctuary cities and have worked to distance themselves from federal immigration policies.

But the legislation raises questions about their involvement in task forces, where local and state officers can serve as translators for federal immigration officials, help carry out immigration arrests and leverage information on immigration status during interrogations.

Tensions flared in Santa Cruz last month between police and ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division over a series of joint raids on MS-13 gang members that instead resulted in immigration arrests of people in the country illegally. Law enforcement officials wonder whether their departments would be liable in such a scenario under the proposed sanctuary state bill.

For now, the California Police Chiefs Assn. does not have a position on the legislation. “Clearly, there is a balance that needs to be struck — one that takes the focus away from those not posing a threat, but allows law enforcement to expend resources protecting our communities,” Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, its president, said.


Twitter: @jazmineulloa


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