Capitol Alert

Sanctuary cities aren’t as popular as you might think in California

Despite defunding threats from the Trump administration, California voters narrowly support communities declaring themselves “sanctuary cities,” according to a statewide survey Tuesday.

But the Berkeley IGS Poll found that a slim majority oppose cities and counties being able to disregard federal requests to detain illegal immigrants who have been arrested and are pending release from custody.

The mixed results, underscored by Californians’ highly partisan views on the topic, point to the complex and confusing nature of what it means to be a “sanctuary city.” The survey defined the term, which can vary by jurisdiction, as a decision to ask officials not to automatically turn undocumented immigrants over to federal authorities for possible deportation.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, said the findings show voters have less sympathy for unauthorized immigrants who have been arrested.

“Some voters are making a distinction between immigrants that local officials happen upon” vs. those who have been arrested, he said.

The Berkeley survey, conducted by the Institute of Governmental Studies, follows Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ warning Monday that the so-called “sanctuary cities” stand to be stripped of Justice Department grants for state and local law enforcement if they refuse to comply with federal immigration law.

Sessions, in his remarks to reporters at the White House, urged the localities to “consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens … and to rethink these policies.”

California leaders have remained defiant, with Democrats contending that immigrants should not be deported solely for being in the country illegally.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles and the author of Senate Bill 54 that would essentially turn California into a “sanctuary state,” condemned Sessions’ remarks as “nothing short of blackmail.”

Gov. Jerry Brown, asked about “sanctuary” policies last week in Washington, acknowledged on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he’s walking a “fine line.”

“I want to work with (Trump) where there’s something good,” Brown said. “But I’m not going to just turn over our police department to become agents of the federal government as they deport women and children and people who are contributing to the economic well-being of our state, which they are.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who last week filed a brief supporting Santa Clara County’s challenge to Trump’s executive order targeting “sanctuary jurisdictions,” criticized the statements by his federal counterpart as “a low blow to our brave men and women in uniform.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee reaffirmed his city’s status, saying self-declared sanctuaries “are safer, more productive, healthier places to live,” while Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has repeatedly promised to remain a “sanctuary city,” pledging to fight the Trump administration in the courts.

Despite changes to SB 54, most notably to require state prisons and county jails to notify the FBI 60 days before releasing an undocumented immigrant with a violent felony conviction, de León’s legislation remains controversial.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican who on Tuesday hosted a public forum with the nation’s top immigration enforcement official, said the legislation preventing state and local police agencies from using their resources to assist federal authorities would be invalid because it conflicts with federal law.

“I have a strong belief that it violates federal law,” Jones told reporters at the Capitol this month. “And federal law reigns supreme.”

Tuesday’s poll found voters’ views on sanctuary policies mostly falling along partisan lines, with large majorities of Democrats supportive, but even more substantial majorities of Republicans expressing their opposition.

Furthermore, it showed that roughly 1 in 5 respondents who initially favor “sanctuaries” indicate they would be less sympathetic if the federal government significantly curtailed federal funding to local communities, as Sessions plans.

A sizable majority, 59 percent to 41 percent, opposes Trump’s proposed wall along much of the U.S. Mexico border, the Berkeley poll found. In 2007, the statewide Field Poll asked about a federal plan for 700 additional miles of border fence, determining just 37 percent favored it, down from 47 percent in April 2006.

Now, with Trump looking to deliver on a central campaign theme, his wall is backed by 86 percent of Republicans, including 63 percent strongly, and disliked by 81 percent of Democrats, 73 percent strongly. Californians without a political party oppose the structure, 63 percent to 37 percent. Nearly half of these unaligned voters, 46 percent, strongly oppose the border wall.

Voters continue to be considerably less partisan about creating a program allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. and apply for citizenship under certain conditions, such as holding down a job, not committing a serious crime, paying back taxes and learning English.

Eighty-two percent say such a program should be extended to immigrants, while only 18 percent oppose it. The number has been above 80 percent since 2006, according to prior surveys by the Field Poll.

Perhaps the largest change over the last decade is the drop in people who describe illegal immigration as a “very serious” problem in California. Today, that number stands 36 percent, a reduction of 13 percentage points from March 2007, and 17 points since July 2006, from data recorded by Field.

After decades of political unrest over the flow of immigrants into California, DiCamillo concluded: “It doesn’t seem to be as big a deal.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

Related stories from Sacramento Bee