United States

A Sanctuary State in the Trump Era

As the state’s legislative year draws to a close this morning, California’s lawmakers are preparing to return to their home districts. They are not scheduled to reconvene in the state’s capital, Sacramento, until January of 2018. But during the final forty-eight hours of their working period this year, the State’s Senators and Assemblymembers debated and voted on hundreds of bills, perhaps most notably approving SB 54, the so-called “sanctuary state” bill.

It’s important to know that long before the election of President Trump, California– which has a Democratic supermajority in both legislative chambers, and an elder of the Democratic Party in the governor’s mansion– has served as a large-scale testing ground of progressive policy, and in the era of Trump, the state carries that distinction more proudly than ever. Legislators have recently rolled out popular proposals that directly contradict the administration’s stated goals, on issues ranging from immigration to energy.

Jerry Brown
California Governor Jerry Brown, after completing his 2017 State of the State Address.

It’s also important to know that State leadership is making no efforts to hide its dissent. Days after President Trump announced that the US intended to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, California Governor Jerry Brown visited Chinese President Xi Jinping for a meeting on climate change, essentially sidestepping the Trump administration. And after Trump’s surprise victory in November, the leaders of the California State Senate and Assembly expressed disgust, releasing a provocative joint statement that finished: “California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.”

There is no bill that encapsulates this idea, that the American Dream has taken refuge in the Golden State, quite so well as Senate Bill 54. The bill, which would make all of California a “Sanctuary State”, so to speak, has been dramatically scaled down from its original, more controversial text, at the urging of Governor Brown. According to the current bill’s legislative counsel’s digest: “This bill would, among other things and subject to exceptions, prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies, including school police and security departments, from using money or personnel to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes”

Pro-SB 54 Activists outside of State Capital, Sacramento.

While the actual text of the bill has been amended seven times since it was originally introduced (just four days after Trump’s Inauguration), this preface, which states the goal of the bill in layman’s terms, has remained relatively unchanged. Essentially, the approach that the bill takes to the issue at hand has been modified, but the goal has remained the same– to prevent local and statewide law enforcement officials from cooperating with ICE detainment requests, or in other words, from acting as immigration agents.

The idea behind “Sanctuary Cities” is that, under current US law, local law enforcement officials are allowed to question individuals about their immigration status– and if they determine that a person is living in the United States illegally, they can hold that person in custody, where they will await deportation. When interacting with the local authorities can lead to deportation, that deters other illegal immigrants from communicating with law enforcement, even to report a crime. And when an entire community is afraid of reporting even the most heinous crime, that community becomes an easy mark for the real criminals. That’s not just a bad thing for illegal immigrants. In the words of Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo: “A person that rapes, or violently attacks, or robs an undocumented immigrant, is somebody that is going to harm a natural-born citizen or lawful resident.”

Sanctuary Cities are not refuges for violent criminals and rapists. In fact, they are quite the opposite. They are municipalities where law enforcement’s top priority is catching real criminals, putting the safety of the people under their jurisdiction above the political agenda of the administration, which has previously suggested pulling federal funding from sanctuary cities.

California State Assembly in Session.

Now that the bill has been approved by the State Assembly, it goes to the Governor’s desk, where it will likely be signed and made law later this year. But SB 54 is by no means the only slap in the face that the state of California is sending the President’s way; other items passed in the final legislative hours included a measure asking congress to censure the president, another attempting to force him to release his tax returns, and one calling on him to publicly apologize for his inappropriate behavior.

Trump has not visited California (the nation’s most populous and productive state) since he lost here by over four million votes in November, bucking a tradition that goes back almost fifty years, of presidents visiting the state within six months of their election. The administration seems intent on avoiding the state altogether, as the Democratic Party eyes a few competitive districts in the state as a means to regain control of the House of Representatives next year.

California is rarely a significant player in Presidential Elections. As a Californian, my vote is electorally worth about ⅓ of a vote cast during a federal election in a state like Montana. But now, as the nation looks to the state to set an example for resisting the actions of the president, California has a chance to prove just how much influence it really has– not just nationally, but on a global scale.

Governor Brown meets with Chinese President Jinping for Climate Change Conference.

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