Politics & Government

Sacramento mayor defies ‘bully’ Trump in DC visit

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, tours Old Sacramento with Brooksie Hughes, right, and Richard Rich on Thursday, March 9, 2017.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, tours Old Sacramento with Brooksie Hughes, right, and Richard Rich on Thursday, March 9, 2017. rbyer@sacbee.com

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, visiting Washington in hopes of winning support for a wide range of development plans, found himself defending his city's immigrant residents against a Trump administration determined to enforce tougher policies.

The mayor challenged a Trump official on the president’s rhetoric and touted the city’s sanctuary status to tech entrepreneurs as a reason for them to move to Sacramento.

“You do not recoil from a bully,” Steinberg said Wednesday as a delegation of Sacramento political, labor and business leaders that wrapped up a three-day trip to promote Sacramento interests in Washington, D.C.

Steinberg’s visit comes as California is at war with Trump over immigration, health care, climate change and other issues.

Trump has repeatedly threatened the state and its institutions with a withdrawal of federal funds. The Sacramento delegation said Trump would be foolish to mess with a state that accounts for 15 percent of the U.S. economy and largely drives its innovation.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra addressed President Donald Trump's comment on possibly withholding federal funding to the state in a fight against sanctuary cities, during a visit to state Department of Justice facilities in Fresno, Cal

The trip included a meeting with William Kirkland, White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs. Steinberg said there was no clarification on whether Trump will seek to enforce his order to halt federal funding for sanctuary cities like Sacramento that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Steinberg said the White House official sought to reassure him that California is a critical part of the national economy and would be treated fairly. Steinberg said he wasn’t reassured.

“I told him how concerned, and frankly disturbed, we are in California about a lot of the rhetoric coming out of the administration and the executive orders around immigration,” Steinberg said. “And that a lot of people in California are very fearful.”

Steinberg and Greater Sacramento Economic Council CEO Barry Broome promoted the city’s sanctuary status in a Wednesday presentation at a Washington, D.C. firm that helps startup companies. They used it as a selling point for Sacramento as a tech destination, emphasizing the outsized role immigrants play in the industry.

Broome sought to reassure a Peruvian engineer in the audience who was worried that Trump would target the H-1B visa program that allows skilled foreign talent to work in the U.S.

“You’re going to be safe and protected in our state. We do not cooperate with (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” Broome said. “You will be a citizen of California.”

Trump has called the state “out of control” and threatened to withhold federal funds from California if the legislature passes a bill making it a sanctuary state.

Steinberg said he expects the bill to pass and that it remains to be seen what Trump will actually do when that happens.

“No doubt multiple tweets,” he said. “Beyond that I don’t know.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer this week questioned public support for sanctuary cities.

He cited a Harvard-Harris Poll conducted for The Hill newspaper that found 80 percent of Americans believe that cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes should be required to turn them over to federal authorities. Spicer said Trump has been very clear that the administration is not going to use federal taxpayer dollars to support cities that provide services to people who are in the country illegally.

“At the end of the day, this is a question for mayors and council members at the local level who have to answer to the people that elected them with clearly a position that is not in keeping with what most Americans believe,” Spicer said.

Steinberg dismissed the comments, saying that Sacramento is strongly supportive of protecting the local immigrant community.

“We’re not trading civil rights for money,” Steinberg said.

Wording of the poll question may have played a role. A Quinnipiac University poll released around the same time found that 53 percent of respondents felt immigrants here illegally should only be deported for "serious crimes."

Twenty-three percent of respondents said immigrants should be deported here illegally for "any crime."

An estimated 57,000 undocumented immigrants live in Sacramento County, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Trump supporter who runs the largest law enforcement agency in the region, doesn’t have his deputies ask about immigration status but does allow federal immigration agents into the county jails to check inmates.

Steinberg, the former Democratic leader of California’s state Senate, said Sacramento city police won’t cooperate in immigration enforcement. He said there is often confusion over what it means to be a sanctuary city.

“We are not going to use our law enforcement officers to arrest, detain and deport kids, college students and law abiding adults who happen to be undocumented,” he said. “This is mean politics. It’s coarse, it’s intended to get a reaction from people. And that’s not the way we roll in Sacramento and in California.”

Franco Ordoñez contributed to this article.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham