Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg is vowing to fight federal attempts to deport undocumented immigrants under incoming president Donald Trump, who promised during his campaign to stop cities from shielding people from immigration enforcement.
Steinberg, a former Democratic state legislator, this week reaffirmed Sacramento’s self-proclaimed status since 1985 as a “sanctuary city.” Responding to a federal crackdown on Central American refugees, the City Council that year made Sacramento a “safe haven” that prohibits city employees, including police, from asking about immigration status or withholding benefits or services based on immigration status.
“We are going to make it very clear that Sacramento will continue to be a sanctuary city,” Steinberg said in an interview Tuesday. “I can’t say it strongly enough: We are going to assure ... families and kids and anybody who is worried about their status in our community that we are going to stand with them.”
Democratic mayors across the country in cities that include Seattle, New York and Chicago have made similar commitments since Trump’s win last week. There are about 300 municipalities nationwide that could be considered sanctuaries for their attempts to protect immigrants from deportation, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, though there is no definition of what that designation means.
About 65,000 undocumented immigrants live in Sacramento County, according to a 2012 study from the Public Policy Institute of California. That’s about one undocumented immigrant for every 22 county residents, lower than the statewide average of one undocumented immigrant for every 13 residents.
Undocumented immigrants are mostly concentrated in poor, urban parts of the county. More than 5,000 undocumented immigrants live in the 95823 ZIP code, located in the Valley Hi and Parkway neighborhoods of south Sacramento, according to PPIC estimates. Outside of Sacramento, the 95670 ZIP code in Rancho Cordova has an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 undocumented immigrants.
Sacramento has maintained its practice of avoiding immigration inquiries since the 1985 ordinance, according to interim City Manager Howard Chan.
Councilman Eric Guerra said he supports Steinberg’s position and sees it as critical to public safety that immigrants know they will not face deportation when dealing with police now or in the future. Guerra said he recently spoke to incoming interim police chief Brian Louie to “make sure that we are out there reassuring the public that (police) are here for public safety.”
Gabby Trejo, who works with undocumented families as associate director for Sacramento Area Congregations Together, said that many immigrants locally have seen increased harassment since the election and are taking active steps such as creating powers of attorney in case of deportation.
She said Steinberg’s stand “definitely, being in a time of uncertainty, brings hope.”
Steinberg said that he is willing to work with the Trump administration on many fronts, but views immigration as a civil rights issue. He said that he is willing to risk a loss of funds if Trump follows through on his promise to withdraw federal money from sanctuary cities.
Trump said in August that he would “end sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths. Cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities will not receive taxpayer dollars.”
Cities rely on federal funds for housing, health services and other community programs – many of which dovetail with Steinberg’s priorities of addressing homelessness and mental health needs.
Sue Frost, who was elected last week to represent Republican-leaning suburbs on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, said she doesn’t think it is worth risking federal funds to fight immigration policies. In a statement, she said “if we lose the federal funds, that’s going to hurt the very people they say they are trying to help.” She said she does not support the concept of sanctuary cities and that, “people ought to probably calm down and see what’s going to happen.”
Local Republicans who support Trump said Steinberg would undermine public safety if he fights the president-elect’s plans to deport undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Carl Burton, who heads Republicans of River City, pointed to the high-profile case of Luis Enriquez Monroy Bracamontes, an undocumented immigrant who is awaiting trial in the shooting deaths of two local sheriff’s deputies, Danny Oliver and Michael Davis Jr., in 2014.
Bracamontes “already had a criminal record and if he came in contact with any law enforcement agency, he should have been deported and not been allowed back in the country under any circumstances,” Burton said. “I just find it appalling that Sacramento would be one of those cities that would say that we are not going to abide by the laws of the United States.”
Bracamontes was deported twice to Mexico in 1997 and 2001 after being arrested on drug and weapons charges. It is unclear exactly when he returned to the U.S. illegally, but he was cited 10 times between 2003 and 2009 for misdemeanor driving violations in Utah under an alias, according to the New York Times.
Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law and an expert on immigration issues, said that Trump likely would need congressional action to withhold funds from cities. Even then, any dissonance between federal, state and local laws could result in litigation.
“It’s going to be a tension that California is at the center of,” Johnson said. “In some ways, the tide has turned. Before, it was states punishing immigrants. Now it’s states protecting immigrants ... We have a series of laws that tend to be more pro-immigrant than the Trump administration would like.”
Despite Steinberg’s stance, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones may have the most direct impact locally when it comes to immigration policy. He can decide how extensively the county jail will cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on holding undocumented immigrants who are arrested on suspicion of crimes.
In December 2015, about 3 percent of the roughly 3,800 inmates in the Sacramento County jail system at any given time were believed to be undocumented, according to a jail profile survey submitted to the state. The Sheriff’s Department also has an agreement with ICE to house about 200 immigrant detainees at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security report from 2015.
Jones said in a statement Wednesday that “(a)lthough we do not act as their agents in any way to enforce immigration law – either in our facilities or in the community – we do cooperate with our ICE partners to the extent that we allow them access to our jail facilities to carry out their mission. Whether or not the city of Sacramento represents itself as a sanctuary city has no bearing on this cooperation.”
Jones, a Republican, continued to trail Democratic Rep. Ami Bera in their congressional race after a new vote count was released Wednesday.
The Sacramento City Council took action to become a sanctuary city in 1985 after President Ronald Reagan pushed to deport Central American refugees fleeing from civil conflicts in countries that included El Salvador and Guatemala.
Between 1981 and 1990, almost a million Central Americans attempted to enter the United States, according to Michelle Mittelstadt of the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. The Reagan policies prompted some religious groups to begin a sanctuary movement that eventually gained wider traction with cities like Sacramento, Los Angeles and Santa Fe, openly defying federal rules.
Steinberg said cities again should band together on federal issues. He said they “have a heightened responsibility to show how to govern in a way where people aren’t afraid and people feel like they are part of something positive ... The importance of states, and now I would say especially cities, have been magnified as a result of this election.”
He said he intends to work with mayors across the country to build a stronger national voice for local governments. “We will work with the (Trump) administration where we can, and fight him where we must,” Steinberg said.
Editor’s note (Nov. 17): This story has been updated with information about Bracamontes’ deportations.
Bee staff writer Philip Reese contributed to this report.