Sacramento leaders are poised to spend up to $300,000 to boost the city’s status as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, even as the federal government threatens to crack down on jurisdictions providing such immigrant protections.
The City Council will vote Thursday on a proposal to invest in an education and legal defense network for undocumented immigrants, with the money coming out of a general fund that supports most core city services. The plan under consideration would also strengthen Sacramento’s status as a sanctuary city by turning into law privacy policies that prohibit city employees – including police – from making inquiries into immigration status.
“It is a modest investment, but it is a very important investment,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “It says very clearly to our community, especially those who are affected by these unconstitutional orders, that ‘we are going to stand with you.’ We have to back up our values with real action to help people who feel at risk and who may be actually at risk.”
Both the sanctuary city ordinance and legal defense fund were proposed by a Safe Haven Task Force formed at City Hall in February. The task force was put in place in response to executive orders by President Donald Trump calling for increased enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Councilman Eric Guerra, who headed the task force, said turning the city’s sanctuary stance from policy into law would put “more teeth” in its position and “makes it relevant to the context we see today, the scapegoating of immigrants.”
About 49,000 Sacramento residents are not citizens, including roughly 4,100 children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s about 10 percent of the city’s residents. Some of them are here legally, some are not – the census bureau does not ask about legal status.
The new money would help fund what is being called the Sacramento Family Unity, Educations and Legal Network for Immigrants, or FUEL, a collection of local immigration attorneys, nonprofits and law schools specializing in immigration law.
The group will hire up to two attorneys to provide legal assistance to an estimated 750 families each year and conduct “Know Your Rights” information sessions in schools, churches and other community gathering places for hundreds more. The network will likely seek grants from other nonprofit agencies to expand its financial capacity.
Attorneys will be tasked with representing immigrants facing deportation and helping undocumented parents “prepare for the worst” by creating guardianships for children and protections for homes and other assets should they be deported, said Guerra.
Guerra said Sacramento hasn’t yet seen federal immigration raids, but “the fear is intense” in immigrant communities and “what we don’t want is families to be separated because that leads to bigger social issues.”
Blake Nordahl, a supervising attorney in the immigration clinic at the McGeorge School of Law, said the network will expand the local roster of attorneys trained in immigration law by working with lawyers whose expertise is in other fields.
“We have a large immigrant population in Sacramento, so hopefully this is just the beginning of being able to work together,” said Nordahl, whose clinic is part of the city-funded network. “I think there’s a real commitment to showing respect to our neighbors and recognizing that Sacramento is based on a city of immigrants and we’re going to take care of our neighbors.”
Sacramento’s vote would follow other California governments that have spent public money to aid undocumented immigrants.
Santa Clara County in January voted to spend $1.5 million over two years to help defend undocumented immigrants facing deportation. San Francisco recently set aside $200,000 for legal aid, and Oakland has allocated $300,000 for a similar effort. A similar public-private fund that could hold up to $10 million has also been proposed for Los Angeles city and county.
Sacramento also was one of several local governments that filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration seeking to block plans to cut federal funding from jurisdictions providing so-called sanctuary. Last week, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the administration from going through with its plans.
Steinberg, who traveled to Washington, D.C., over the weekend to promote the Sacramento region, said the proposal has been vetted and he thinks it falls “on strong legal ground,” and could withstand federal attacks.
“Even if there is some risk, it’s still the right thing to do,” he said. “While symbolism is important, it’s not enough. We have to back up our values with real action.”
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the advocacy group Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Sacramento and other jurisdictions have “gone over the top to protect people in the country illegally.”
“I’m sure all the other needs in Sacramento are being met,” said Mehlman, whose organization supports tighter immigration regulations. “I’m sure they’re just spending like crazy on improving education and infrastructure and that they’ve got all this extra cash lying around to assist people violating immigration laws.”
Bee reporter Philip Reese contributed to this report.