Capitol Journal: What does ‘sanctuary state’ actually mean? It’s time for lawmakers to figure it out

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)

“Sanctuary” is a fighting word in the state Legislature — whatever “sanctuary” means.

And that’s one of the hang-ups. There’s not even bipartisan agreement on what it means to be a “sanctuary city.”

“It means different things to different folks,” says Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), a longtime advocate of immigrant rights who is trying to turn California into a sanctuary state.

“It’s a symbolic word across the political spectrum,” De León continues. “On the far right, it is a highly politically charged word. On the far left, the word is grossly misleading. Reporters and editorial boards and activists on both sides of the spectrum just keep using it. But it’s a misnomer.


“There is no such thing as in invisible force shield, where if you get behind it you’re protected. It doesn’t exist. Remember when you would play tag as a kid? As long as you reached base you were free? That doesn’t happen in real life.

“The federal government enforces federal immigration law. Nothing can change that — neither the state nor cities. That’s what gets lost in the impassionate rhetoric.”

There’s much more to it than that, of course. The question is whether California’s roughly 40 so-called sanctuary cities and counties are hampering the federal government’s efforts to enforce immigration laws by refusing to cooperate with it. The logical answer is “yes.”

More pertinent, what if the entire state refused to cooperate?

One thing seems certain: The S-word isn’t going away. And it needs a clearer definition.

For Republicans, “sanctuary” means protecting criminals who sneaked into the country illegally and threaten our communities.

For Democrats, it means walling off California from President Trump’s aggressive attempts to deport hardworking and law-abiding immigrants who are here illegally.


Yes, that is a contradiction, and Republicans repeatedly point it out. How can these people be law-abiding when they broke the law to get here?

But our lives are full of contradictions. It’s also a contradiction to savor California’s cheap and abundant fruits and vegetables while denouncing the low-wage field hands who pick the crops.

“What we’re talking about here,” De León says, “are law-abiding, taxpaying maids, busboys, housekeepers, cooks, gardeners and people we entrust our children and senior citizens to.”

De León’s mother was on that list. She migrated to San Diego illegally and cleaned homes for a living. De León often rode the bus with her to work.

“By the way,” De León adds, “we do not want serious felons in our communities. We want them removed immediately.”

But sanctuary policies do place barriers in front of immigration agents. That, after all, is the purpose.

De León’s bill, SB 54, basically would prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from using their officers and jails to help enforce federal immigration laws.

State and local tax money should be used to enforce state and local laws, Democrats contend. It shouldn’t be spent to help the feds enforce theirs.

Updates from Sacramento »

Trump really irritates De León and his colleagues, many of whom are Latinos from immigrant families.

“This [bill] is a reaction to Donald Trump,” the Senate leader says. “We wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for Donald Trump. His is a dramatic departure from a focus on deporting criminals to removing people in the everyday work force.

“You know what happens when the head of household is deported? Who pays the rent? The family becomes homeless.”

But Trump wouldn’t have been able to capitalize politically on illegal immigration — nor vowed to build a wall and deport the undocumented — if some previous president and Congress had compromised on a much-gabbed about reform bill. That now seems virtually impossible.

In Sacramento, Democrats hold a supermajority in both houses and can pass anything they’re united behind. De León’s bill will probably pass the Senate with the two-thirds vote needed to enact it immediately. But the Assembly could be a tougher sell. And Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, hasn’t weighed in yet. He’ll no doubt wait until the last minute.

The measure already has zipped through two Senate committees on party-line votes. Republicans particularly objected to provisions that restrict sheriffs and prison officials from informing federal agents about the release of undocumented felons.

De León amended the bill to require that the FBI be notified at least 60 days before the freeing of any inmate convicted of a violent felony. Republicans argued the list should be expanded beyond merely “violent” felons.

“We need to include ‘serious’ felonies,” says Sen. Pat Bates (R- Laguna Niguel), who on Tuesday was elected the new Senate minority leader. “Poor communities are constantly under siege from the criminal element. That’s not acceptable to me.”

De León’s bill is strongly opposed by the California State Sheriffs’ Assn.

“Sheriffs don’t wish to act as immigrant police and aren’t,” says Cory Salzillo, the association’s lobbyist. “But when the federal government says, ‘You have a person in jail of interest to us,’ sheriffs are going to continue to respond and cooperate.”

That sounds like a pox on De León’s bill. Sheriffs are elected too. And what district attorney or state attorney general is politically foolish enough to prosecute a sheriff for refusing to coddle criminals who are in the country illegally?

Democrats should use common sense and pass a clearly defined sanctuary bill that protects innocent maids, but helps the federal government give dangerous criminals the swift boot.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter


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