Capitol Journal: California Democrats want a ‘sanctuary state’ for immigrants here illegally. But those who are felons should be sent packing

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)

Democratic politicians want California to be a sanctuary for immigrants here illegally. OK. If they’re hard working and obeying the law, fine.

But if they’re thugs? Call the feds and boot their butts back across the border.

That’s my view. And it’s also the opinion of most sane people, I suspect. Even Democratic office holders must think this down deep. So why is it so hard for them to say it?

Being mushy just makes Democrats easy targets — not only for the hotheads who are constantly riled up about all illegal immigration, but ordinary citizens who may be sympathetic toward struggling undocumented families, but wonder why California seems to tolerate the few hoodlums among them.


This came to mind Tuesday as I watched a perfectly sensible Republican bill killed by majority Democrats in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. It was on a straight party-line vote.

As legislation goes, AB 298 was pretty simple. Under it, if an undocumented felon who previously served time was apprehended — perhaps on suspicion of committing another crime — local law enforcement could contact immigration agents and hold the ex-con for up to 48 hours.

Presumably the felon already had been deported at least once and then sneaked back into the country. Now, he’d be lined up to be deported again.

If I were allowed to make laws, I’d require locking up the guy for a while just because he’s a convicted criminal who reentered the country illegally after having been deported. But immigration law is set by Congress. If the ex-con were charged with another state crime, I’d certainly try him. And if he were found guilty, I’d throw the book at him.

But none of that had anything to do with the bill by Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City), a lawyer whose family grows rice in the Sacramento Valley.

“When it comes to convicted felons,” Gallagher told me, “we should be cooperating with the federal government. We should all be able to agree on that. No sanctuary for felons.


“It seems to me,” he continued, “that a lot of committee members and the chairman were getting caught up in the politics stuff and [President] Trump calling names. And that’s not what the bill was about. I was only fixed on convicted felons.”

At the committee hearing, Gallagher pleaded: “Don’t let this get wrapped up in politics.”

“We’re talking about people convicted of a felony and undocumented — a very small percentage of the population,” he said. “They’re victimizing the very immigrant community you’re talking about…. It happens more often than you think.”

Gallagher mentioned two infamous cases commonly cited by opponents of “sanctuary cities.”

One was the 2015 fatal shooting in San Francisco of Kate Steinle, 32, by a Mexican national who had served three federal prison terms for felony reentry into the country. The shooter had been under the San Francisco sheriff’s custody on a drug charge, but was released without notifying federal agents, as they’d requested. San Francisco is a longtime sanctuary city.

The other case was the 2014 slaying of two sheriff’s deputies in Sacramento and Placer counties, allegedly by a convicted felon who had twice been deported to Mexico. He currently is awaiting trial on a murder charge.

“We should make sure that sort of thing never happens again,” Gallagher told the committee.

But Democrats never addressed the bill head-on. They skirted all around it, empathizing with struggling law-abiding immigrants and denouncing Trump. The hearing was symptomatic of how personal this subject is for millions of Latinos and how polarized much of the entire population is.

“The term ‘illegal alien’ is extremely offensive,” Assemblyman Miguelo Santiago (D-Los Angeles) said. “Yes, my father came here illegally. He came several times and he was deported. But that’s the story of many of us.”

The bill, however, didn’t have anything in it about “illegal aliens.”

Updates from Sacramento »

Gallagher said cooperating with immigration agents to help them deport convicted criminals could avoid the federal funding cuts to sanctuary cities that Trump has threatened.

But committee Chairman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) said the bill’s 48-hour hold provision was “problematic” and possibly unconstitutional.

Then he started alluding to Trump talk and fascism. Referring to anti-illegal immigration rhetoric, he said: “We’ve seen that playbook in the ‘30s and ‘40s. We should learn from the past…. Unfortunately your bill gets wrapped up in all this.”

So a rational discussion about illegal immigration and crooks doesn’t seem likely.

The major immigration bill currently pending is by Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). It would make California a “sanctuary state.”

De León did tell me recently: “We do not want serious felons in our communities. We want them removed immediately.”

But his bill doesn’t go far enough toward doing that for Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. He opposes it.

De León’s bill, SB 54, would prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from helping enforce federal immigration laws.

But it would allow a sheriff to notify the FBI before releasing someone jailed for a misdemeanor who had previously been convicted of a violent felony. And it would require prison officials to notify the FBI before freeing a violent felon.

Republicans argue that’s not good enough. Agreed.

The last thing California needs is more dangerous criminals. Send them packing. And Democrats should say that clearly.

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