Sanctuary cities: California Democrats fight to protect undocumented citizens in face of Donald Trump's assault

Former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder has been hired to advise on strategy

David Usborne
Sacramento, California
Friday 03 February 2017 15:28 GMT
US Sanctuary Cities: In the space of just six hours my Dad had been detained and taken to Tijuana

When President Donald Trump ordered the government to withhold federal funding from "sanctuary cities", Adriana Guzman felt the fear travel to her bones. She thought she and her two girls were safe. No more. “We don’t know what is going to happen now,” she says, fighting tears.

Sanctuary cities, excoriated by the President as inimical to crime-fighting, are one of the few comforts for those among America’s 11 million undocumented people who live in them. Officers on the beat are prohibited from querying their immigration status in day-to-day encounters, like traffic stops. In some cases they bar their jails from holding undocumented arrestees for longer than their alleged crime would normally warrant only so federal agents from ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, can take them into custody for potential deportation.

Mr Trump wants the sanctuary system undone and means to force compliance with financial blackmail. To its defenders, especially in California, which has the greatest number of such municipalities, it is not just cruel but wrong-headed, drawing on disproved – and, they insist, racist – notions that illegal immigrants disproportionately commit crimes and take jobs from legal residents.

Moreover, it risks having the opposite of the desired effect, they argue. In cities where there is no separation of law and immigration enforcement, the undocumented are fearful of any contact with the police or any body of authority. Crimes go unreported. These areas, studies show, have higher rates of crime, not lower, and show poorer economic performance as well.

Nor, as Mr Trump might imagine, is it a neat matter of one legal household there and one illegal household there. In case after case encountered by The Independent in northern California this week, illegal residents who now feel at renewed risk belonged to families with both documented and undocumented members under one roof. Some fear being ripped apart, kin from kin.

Ms Guzman, 35, is among those caught in the muddled brew that American immigration policy has become. A decade after she entered the country from Mexico, she is finally in the process of getting legal papers. But of her two daughters, 10 and 13, one was born here and is a US citizen, the other, who came with her across the border as a toddler, remains undocumented.

She has felt protected because she lives in San Francisco, one of the largest American cities with sanctuary ordinances, alongside Los Angeles, Boston and New York. She volunteers in neighbouring San Mateo – not a sanctuary city – to help illegal aliens with legal troubles. One family that recently received an unannounced visit from ICE felt so traumatised they moved out of their house to live in their car. ICE had the wrong address and weren’t even looking for them.

US Sanctuary Cities: We in California have a responsibility to say 'no'

“In San Mateo, people are afraid to go even to church. Children are afraid their parents are not going to be there to pick them up from school,” she said. If she did not have the protection of a sanctuary city she would consider returning to Guadalajara.

Rosalind Garcia, 47, who cleans office buildings at night in Sacramento, also wonders now about returning to Mexico. She is afraid because her daughter is legal but her son, now 30, is not. But that may not be an option either. The father of her children was abducted in Mexico by drug gangs last year and hasn’t been seen since. “I am not mad, but I feel depressed,” she said of Trump’s order. “We have shown that we are good human beings and we have followed the rules. My son is not a drug dealer or a rapist like he says we are as immigrants, my son is a professional.”

Many families have already been sundered. Victor Alvarez recalled his father coming to collect him at his job at Krispy Kreme doughnuts in Long Beach one night last February only to be stopped by officers on the curb outside for a broken headlight. Within hours he had been bundled away and shipped off to Tijuana, across the border, where he remains still.

Victor, who is 21, has papers – he was born in the US – but his father did not. Suddenly the head of his family, he was forced to drop out of California State University. What stuns him still is that the officers who stopped his father were not even with the city force, but were campus police.

Mr Trump proclaims himself incensed by those jurisdictions that will not hold undocumented individuals in jail long enough for ICE to collect them for potential deportation. He repeatedly cites the case of Kate Steinle, a San Francisco woman who was shot and killed in 2015 by an illegal Mexican who had been deported five times. He had been arrested shortly before the killing but released when an ICE detainer request was refused.

US Sanctuary Cities: It's not Trump I'm scared of, it's the white power behind him

Cities like San Francisco “have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our republic,” his executive order, demanding the withholding of federal funding from them, declares. Only funding for law enforcement would be unaffected.

San Francisco, which gets more than $1.2bn (£960m) a year in federal funding and risks losing a portion of that, this week filed a suit to thwart Mr Trump, calling the order an unconstitutional infringement on its own sovereignty as a city. The mayors of Los Angeles, Boston and New York may follow suit.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the California state legislature are also fighting back. They have hired Eric Holder, the first US Attorney General under former President Barack Obama, to advise on strategy. A bill that would have the effect of extending sanctuary status across the whole state was approved by the Senate’s Public Safety Committee after a brief hearing on Tuesday, and appears set for passage by both chambers before this month is out.

“Californians need to stand up in a very clear and strong way to say that what is happening in this country is both terrifying and unacceptable,” State Senator Scott Wiener said after Tuesday’s hearing. “If California is not going to stand up and push back and say no this administration, I don’t know who will. When you are dealing with a bully, you don’t capitulate.”

Supporters of the bill had travelled by bus, many overnight, to be there. Among them was Juan Cuandon, who helps organise a day-labour centre in Graton, in the Sonoma Valley. It attracts up to 80 men a day, mostly undocumented Mexican immigrants, looking for casual work in construction and in the fields. “Everyone is afraid,” he said of Mr Trump. “He is putting all of us under a single umbrella saying that all of us are criminals, that everyone is a felon.”

Like so many others, Francisco Aviles Pino, 21, an undocumented student from Santa Ana, believes Mr Trump has unfairly criminalised the debate over sanctuary cities. “The term sanctuary for other people means safety, it means love,” he said. “It has faith origins and a lot of people who supported Trump were people of faith. He came in and gave them their sanctuary. It’s the wall. It’s the same thing.”

Mr Alvarez, who is no longer at Krispy Kreme, travelled to Sacramento all the way from Long Beach to support the California bill because he doesn’t want other families to go through what his has. “If this was around when my dad was here it would have helped him very much. He would probably still be here.”

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