California Is Now an Official 'Sanctuary State.' Will Others Follow?

A couple of other states are considering similar bills. It was an uphill battle -- even in one of the most pro-immigrant states.
by | September 18, 2017
Activists march in a rally in downtown L.A. against the federal raids and deportation of immigrants. (AP/Nick Ut)

Update at 2:30 p.m. EST on Oct. 5, 2017: Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill on Thursday to make California an official "sanctuary state."

California is poised to become the nation's strictest "sanctuary state," restricting state and local law enforcement's cooperation with federal immigration authorities and forbidding them from asking about a person's immigration status. 

The legislation, which was introduced last December as a direct response to Trump’s victory and hardline stance on immigration, is the first of its kind to pass in the Trump era. It passed the state Assembly on Friday and the state Senate on Saturday by a vote of 27-11, along party lines, just a day after a federal judge blocked Trump’s attempt to defund sanctuary cities. It is now on the governor’s desk, awaiting his expected signature.

"That word, 'sanctuary,' has deep meaning. It suggests refuge, safety, a place of belonging," says Joseph McKellar, co-director of the advocacy organization PICO California. "A bill like this sends an incredibly important message to immigrants and their families that they're wanted here."

Weeks of negotiations with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown resulted in a significantly watered-down bill, but it’s still the furthest-reaching legislation of its kind anywhere in the country.

Oregon became a sanctuary state 30 years ago, prohibiting the use of state and local resources for immigration enforcement when the immigrant in question hasn’t committed a crime. That law, however, has recently come under fire, and conservative groups are hoping to put the issue before voters in 2018. In August, Illinois passed what some have called a "sanctuary state" law because it prevents state and local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration agents unless they have a warrant.

Neither of those laws offer as many protections as California’s. 

Among its many provisions, the bill prevents local jails from holding onto inmates who would otherwise be released just to give the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) time to pick them up. It also places strict limits on ICE transfers, or the practice of notifying ICE when an inmate is going to be released. And it places limits on "joint taskforces," or teams of federal agents and local officers that work together, most often in gang enforcement. 

Sanctuary state bills similar to California's have been introduced in Colorado and New Mexico this year, but both of those measures have slim chances of making it out of the legislature.

In New Mexico, the legislation could feasibly make it out of the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, but it stands virtually no chance with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who in 2011 overturned an executive order preventing police from inquiring about immigration status. In Colorado, the bill has no support from the Republicans, which dominate the state Senate.

Even though California is one of the most pro-immigrant states in the country, the bill's path to the governor's mansion wasn't easy. The bill faced opposition from some local councils and from the California State Sheriff’s Association, which were not appeased even after the bill’s many amendments. The law enforcement organization argues that the bill still leaves out some serious offenses, and it could end up endangering public safety.

The Trump administration, too, has made its displeasure known: A U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson last week said the state was “attempting to codify a commitment to returning criminal aliens back onto our streets.”

In its original iteration, the California bill barred state and local law enforcement from cooperating with ICE except regarding inmates who committed serious or violent felonies. But the final version widely expanded the list of crimes that can have an undocumented immigrant turned over to federal authorities. It now includes 800 offenses, some of which are minor drug offenses and nonviolent property offenses, says Angela Chan, policy director and senior staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus.

Both McKellar and Chan say that, despite the compromises, the bill will make a real, material impact for immigrants across the state, particularly those who live in areas without sanctuary policies, like San Diego, the Inland Empire and the Central Valley. These tend to be areas that lack the “deep organizational roots” of places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where immigrants and advocates have been able to mobilize against police cooperation with ICE more effectively, says McKellar. The bill will also eliminate the state’s last remaining 287(g) contract (which spells out extensive cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement) in Orange County.

“We know this isn’t a perfect bill. We had an internal debate and asked ourselves, 'do we push so hard for a better bill that we risk a veto? Or do we take this as a victory?'” says McKellar. “In the end, we opted for the latter because our people need to taste victory right now.”

McKellar says he hopes this bill can act as a jumping off point for future sanctuary bills in the state and a model for states around the country that might be considering one. He says bills like this one will cut to the heart of what state action looks like against Trump’s immigration policies, if only for the weight and significance of the word ‘sanctuary’ to immigrant ears.