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Home News Politics California could become a sanctuary state. What that means

California could become a sanctuary state. What that means

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Protesters in Palm Springs called for the city to become a sanctuary city. (Jan. 31, 2017)
Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — California cannot stop federal immigration officers from conducting deportation raids in the Golden State.

However, the state can stop local cops and deputies from helping the feds enforce immigration law.

California’s “sanctuary state bill,” officially known as Senate Bill 54, aims to severely restrict how much local law enforcement can work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But the bill would not completely eradicate cooperation between local and federal law enforcement.

Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff described the dynamic like this: “If a checkpoint is conducted somewhere, we don’t invite them. But the reality is they can drop by any time they want.”

The Desert Sun spoke with lawyers, academics, activists and law enforcement experts to find out what SB 54 is and isn’t. It is important to note that the current draft of the bill could be different from the one that becomes law, assuming it becomes law at all.

► Related: Trump, in strategy shift, considers new executive order on travel ban

The current version of the bill would kick ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection out of local jails and restrict their access to some state databases. It also would ban state agencies from asking and collecting anyone’s immigration status.

Police departments and sheriffs’ offices still would work with ICE and Customs and Border Protection on multi-agency task forces, which sometimes result in deportations. Federal immigration authorities still would have access to fingerprint data from everyone booked into a local jail.

What does it mean to be a sanctuary?

Neither federal nor state laws have defined sanctuary cities, so the term means different things to different people.

“The biggest misconception is that people think that when you declare yourself a sanctuary it means that there is absolutely no contact with ICE, and that is not true,” said Marissa Montes, co-director of the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “If ICE wanted to have a raid in downtown LA and did everything procedurally correct, like get a warrant, the city would not be able to stop them.”

“The biggest misconception is that people think that when you declare yourself a sanctuary it means that there is absolutely no contact with ICE, and that is not true.”

Marissa Montes, Loyola Marymount University

SB 54 was introduced before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, but after a campaign in which he threatened to cut off federal money to cities that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.

When Trump signed an executive order that strips money from sanctuary cities, he defined sanctuaries as local and state governments that have enacted laws limiting communication of their residents’ immigration status with the Department of Homeland Security. These governments violate a federal statute.

SB 54 specifies that it is not violating the federal statute. Instead, the bill aims to limit what information local agencies can gather so that when ICE asks about immigration status, local agencies are allowed to communicate but won’t have much to say.

However, Trump’s order also gives his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, authority to identify sanctuary cities. Sessions previously opposed immigration reform in the U.S. Senate and wants to limit legal and illegal immigration.

That discretion could be used against California to strip its federal money, but state officials would bring legal challenges.

“I think (restricting funding) is legally a gray area right now,” said Ana Muniz, assistant criminology professor at University of California, Irvine. “The federal government can’t compel local governments to act, but there is also the legality over the federal government forcing the state to act. Withholding money could be seen as an overstepping.”

What would be the impact of becoming a sanctuary state?

Trump inherited a massive immigration enforcement apparatus that includes ICE, the border patrol and immigration courts. That enforcement machine is used in a variety of ways to deport immigrants in the country illegally and immigrants in the country legally but have committed crimes.

The president can prioritize going after immigrants convicted of crimes, like Barack Obama did, or cast a wider net and go after those arrested but not convicted of crimes, like Trump has done.

In California, the majority of cooperation between local and federal agencies happens in county jails and is completely voluntary.

Many jails allow ICE agents to interview inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. Some jails also tell ICE when certain inmates will be released so federal agents can detain those inmates as soon as they are out on bail or are finished serving their sentence.

As now written, the sanctuary state bill would prohibit the use of state facilities for immigration enforcement purposes. This would essentially kick ICE out of county-run jails.

“Saying we cannot provide access to individuals in our jails is problematic,” said Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

Salizillo said barring ICE from jails may result in a missed opportunity for the federal government to speak with and identify deportable immigrants while they are incarcerated. Inmates could be released after serving their time and commit more crimes in the U.S.

Additionally, Salzillo said the bill is vague on local participation in multi-agency task forces and may limit local participation on anti-gang or human trafficking operations.

State Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican from Temecula, Calif., also opposes the bill because he is worried it may make it difficult for federal law enforcement to catch dangerous criminals.

► Related: Mexico warns citizens of ‘new reality’ after undocumented mom deported from Arizona

Supporters of the bill call those concerns a fear tactic, saying the Department of Homeland Security would still have access for fingerprint data. They argue that people who have served their sentence already have paid their debt to society and shouldn’t be punished a second time.

“We have a criminal justice system to respond to those concerns,” said Grisel Ruiz, staff lawyer for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “We already have everyone going through that system. Why are we submitting immigrants to another?”

What are California’s current immigration policies?

Two California laws, the Trust Act and the Truth Act, already limit specific aspects of type of in-jail cooperation.

The first law, passed in 2013, prevented jails from accepting detainers or immigration holds, asking them to hold inmates longer than their sentence so that federal agents could pick them up. Several aspects of detainers have been ruled unconstitutional in lower courts and the practice largely has been phased out in California, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

► Related: Trump: Feds may defund Calif. over sanctuary-state push

The second law, passed last year, addresses tactics ICE uses to interview inmates in jail.

Immigration cases are civil, not criminal; therefore, defendants don’t have the same rights. For example, ICE agents aren’t required to tell inmates that they have the right to remain silent even though inmates do have that right.

California’s Truth Act requires inmates to receive consent forms explaining their rights to them before ICE agents talk to them.

► Related: Chris Christie eager to partner with Trump on sanctuary cities

The sanctuary state bill is an escalation of these two laws. It was introduced before Trump became president and is largely a preemptive strike against his mass deportation plans.

“It’s a really expansive bill,” Muniz said.

Follow Gustavo Solis on Twitter: @JournoGoose

Related: 

► Mayor: Phoenix can’t be a sanctuary city

► Cincinnati defies Trump, becomes sanctuary city

► First ‘sanctuary city’ caves to Trump demands

► Showdown on ‘sanctuary cities’ plays out in Texas

► Big city mayors vow to defy Trump on sanctuary cities order

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