At the Sacramento County Youth Gym last Tuesday, Sheriff Scott Jones took his place onstage next to Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and endured nearly two hours of shouting and cursing from attendees.
It did not seem like a particularly productive way to spend an evening.
Jones said he invited Homan to the immigration forum to allay deportation fears among community members, a goal that failed miserably judging by the hostility and anxiety expressed by many of the hundreds of people who packed the gym. Mayor Darrell Steinberg and state Senate leader Kevin de León also attended, sitting in the front row and asking questions during the event.
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Why Homan, President Donald Trump’s top immigration enforcer, chose Sacramento to hold his first-ever public meeting is an interesting question. Was it because of our status as a sanctuary city and the capital of California? Or was there something else at play? Was Homan there to help Jones, who previously expressed support for Trump’s presidential campaign, raise his national profile? Was Jones, the failed Republican congressional candidate, angling for a job in the Trump administration? The Sacramento sheriff already had taken a lead role in opposing a controversial state Senate bill that seeks to curtail how much Homan’s office can work with California law enforcement leaders.
Speaking days after the event, Jones said there is no bigger career motive behind his hosting Homan. But his national-news-making appearance with the ICE chief underscored the ideologies dividing law-enforcement hard-liners sympathetic to Trump and those pushing back on the other side. And in Sacramento, those two positions are embodied by Jones on one side and Steinberg on the other.
Antagonism between the two politicians seemingly has been brewing for some time. In the editorial pages of The Bee, Jones recently called out Steinberg for not supporting city police as Jones feels Steinberg should. Before Tuesday’s event, Steinberg called Jones’ decision to hold a public forum with Homan “cynical” and “mean.”
Putting aside that Jones is the most high-profile Republican in Sacramento and Steinberg the top Democrat on the local level, the two men actually share common ground. If we are to take their public statements as gospel, then both Steinberg and Jones favor a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants who are not otherwise running afoul of the law. Both express compassion for “hard working” immigrants and young people who were brought to the U.S. without documentation by their parents or guardians.
The two diverge over the issue of sanctuary cities. But at Tuesday’s meeting, Steinberg got Jones to publicly pledge he would never allow his officers to be deputized by the feds as de facto immigration officers.
Moreover, Jones said he does not accept federal “detainers” from ICE, which means he does not comply when federal immigration officers ask his department to hold prisoners in his county jail longer than their prescribed terms. ICE will request that jailers hold prisoners longer so they have more time to build immigration cases against suspects. But Jones said he and other California sheriffs are loath to comply with the detainers because they fear being sued in federal court for violating the civil rights of prisoners, a real issue not addressed by the harsh rhetoric of the Trump administration.
“There is still probably a disconnect between conversations California sheriffs are having with ICE and those messages getting up to the president,” Jones told me.
As Trump is learning each time one of his executive orders is blocked in the courts, immigration issues in America are much more complex than the simplistic arguments offered by the law-and-order hard-liners or the hard-line immigration advocates who oppose them.
For example, those who were raging against Jones on Tuesday may not know it, but Jones’ department was one of many nationwide called out in a memo released by Homan’s office. Why? Because ICE is adopting Trump’s strategy of attempting to shame those who don’t follow their guidelines. One of Trump’s immigration orders expressly states that agencies like Jones’ need to comply with ICE detainers. So ICE compiled a list of departments failing to comply with their agenda, and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is on it.
Few seemed to recognize those nuances Tuesday. In fact, most of the people hurling invectives at Jones and Homan were unfocused or incoherent. Same goes for the handful of folks who spoke in favor of Homan and Jones. And as the evening droned on, a truth about the immigration divide was revealed: It’s not that people are talking past each other in an immigration debate. It’s that most people don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to immigration.
Both Jones and Steinberg agree that America’s immigration system is broken. Both Jones and Steinberg understand that the cause of this festering boil on the American body politic is a lack of comprehensive immigration reform that would legalize millions of people if they could prove they were hard-working and weren’t breaking the law. It’s been more than 30 years since the last time America reformed its immigration policies. And now, with Trump as president, the issue is framed by false narratives.
Trump claims that the U.S.-Mexico border is a sieve. It’s not. Trump claims that vast number of undocumented immigrants are dangerous to the American public. They are not. Trump claims that undocumented immigrants steal jobs from Americans, but, again, the statistics do not bear this out.
So where does that leave Jones, Steinberg and Sacramento’s recent entry into the national debate? At Tuesday’s meeting, which took place a day after California lawmakers reacted to a renewed call from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities, it left the two local leaders on opposite sites of an argument that no longer seems to have any middle ground despite commonsense beliefs shared by many.
Jones said he had organized the forum Tuesday to provide facts about immigration actions and “dispel misinformation,” not change minds. Not that many minds there were open to being changed. When Homan told the audience, “We prioritize criminals” for deportation, focusing on those who are a “public safety threat,” not those who are law-abiding, some in the crowd responded by yelling: “Lies!”
Steinberg remained skeptical, too. “I have doubts (about how enforcement is being applied),” he said. “There is just too much policy uncertainty.”
Jones and Steinberg were cordial and professional to each other at Tuesday’s event. In fact, when some of the most unruly protesters cursed at Jones, it was Steinberg who rose from his seat and motioned for protesters to show respect. But both politicians could have done more to bridge the divide, acknowledging what they have in common instead of remaining so firmly in their camps.
There are solutions to this immigration mess. Jones could join Steinberg in advocating for overall immigration reform. He could join Steinberg in pushing the federal government to protect undocumented children and young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. Steinberg could put more emphasis on the need to deport undocumented criminals who are violent or engaging in nefarious activities. Nobody wants these people in our communities.
Finding solutions could start with these two Sacramento public servants, both of whom have influence and ambition beyond their local jurisdictions in a state that will continue to set the agenda for the rest of the nation. But no progress was made Tuesday. In fact, it was America’s immigration debate all in one room, left unresolved at the end, as Steinberg exited through one door and Jones departed through another.