Capitol Alert

Is 'sanctuary state' the best political issue for the GOP in years? Not in California, experts warn

Roseville resident Amanda Sheldon told the City Council earlier this spring that a vote to oppose California’s "sanctuary state" law would lead the community down a dangerous road.

“There is nothing to be feared here, and the false manipulation of crime or fear connected with immigrants would be a stain on the history of this city’s decisions,” said Sheldon, who grew up in the city and later moved back with plans to buy a home.

No one on the five-member council backed Roseville Vice Mayor Bonnie Gore’s call to place an item on the agenda to oppose the law.

A week later and 420 miles south in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina, people packed into a council chamber and spilled outside to address the law again.

“I am sorry that your nation that you came from is a pile of garbage,” said Chris Phillips, who told the council his grandparents fled the Castro regime in the 1950s and immigrated to the United States legally.

“Go back there and fix your country,” he said as the meeting stretched into its fifth hour. “Stop screwing mine up, because my family has worked hard to make this country great.”

Thousands of Californians have spoken up in public forums across the state this year to influence local elected officials to take stands on the "sanctuary state" law, the most polarizing immigration issue since voters approved Proposition 187 in 1994.

The Republican Party views Senate Bill 54 as a rare political gift and is attempting to capitalize on the fervor to boost the GOP's already disproportionate influence in a low-turnout election year. One party activist called it the best issue for Republicans in years.

Last week, President Donald Trump repeatedly told California local and state officials that attacking the law would benefit them politically during a meeting over the sanctuary state law at the White House.

But while the anti-sanctuary rhetoric could boost Republican candidates elsewhere, California could be a different story.

Political experts draw parallels between the party's opposition to the sanctuary state law and support for an anti-immigrant measure approved more than 20 years ago. And they warn that the strategy could backfire.

Proposition 187, later overturned by the courts, sought to strip undocumented immigrants of access to education and other services. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson embraced the ballot measure as a hallmark of his successful re-election campaign in 1994. The issue provided a temporary boon for Wilson and other candidates but ultimately alienated many Latino voters from the GOP and marked the “beginning of the end for the Republican Party” in California, said Brad Jones, a political science professor at UC Davis.

Today, Republicans barely outnumber no party preference voters in a deep-blue state where Latinos make up the majority of residents and an increasingly powerful voting bloc. Not a single Republican holds a statewide office. If history repeats itself, the party's waning influence could fade even further.

"Trump and Republicans are strategically nationalizing this issue," Jones said. "Ironically, the biggest effect could be outside the state. In the long term, it’s another nail in the coffin for the (California) Republican Party.”

At the urging of party officials, at least 40 city councils and 10 county boards of supervisors have formally rebuked the law in public meetings.

The cities of Colusa, Yuba City and Lincoln and Amador County are among jurisdictions that voted against the state law or filed legal briefs in support of a Trump administration lawsuit against California and similar court actions by local cities. Opponents often cited fears about increases in crime that experts say are not supported by facts.

A UC San Diego professor's study of FBI data backs suggestions that crime is actually lower in sanctuary communities overall. Researchers from UC Riverside and San Diego State analyzed polls from Texas after the state approved Senate Bill 4, a law best described as the antithesis of California's, and discovered strong evidence that people residing in counties with markedly high Latino growth were disproportionately opposed to sanctuary cities.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that an anti-immigrant hate group, Federation for American Immigration Reform, mobilized a small group of activists to influence city council members in Orange County and other areas of Los Angeles to oppose the law.

"It’s truly disheartening that this long-slumbering anti-immigrant coalition has been reawakened by the president’s divisive and racially explosive rhetoric," said state Sen. Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat who crafted SB 54. "They are more than willing to pick at the scar tissue that was already healed."

Terry Gherardi, a member of the El Dorado County Republican Central Committee, said residents in her area are sensitive to the topic after Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Danny Oliver, an El Dorado County resident, and Placer County Sheriff's Detective Michael Davis Jr. were killed by an undocumented immigrant in 2014. Her central committee is actively encouraging cities and counties to counter the law.

"And so, it hurts, it hits home here," Gherardi said. "We as a central committee feel that it’s very important that we hold people to the fire and see where their values are."

Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman and former chair of the California Republican Party, rejects any notion that racial bias plays a role in the opposition campaign. Immigrant and minority council members and county supervisors, including his wife and Orange County supervisor Michelle Steel, have shepherded votes against the law in many instances, he said.

He said the law marks an opportunity for GOP candidates to attract moderate voters. A recent poll found that 56 percent of California registered voters support sanctuary policies.

"We’re finding folks who have never been involved in civic affairs, local affairs, but they realize it’s such an onerous state mandate that it creates a problem in their lives," Steel said. "It gets a lot of the Republicans who have been discouraged. This is an electrifying issue, and it’s something that people can identify and understand perfectly."

Attendees of the California Republican Party Convention were offered a morning session on how to lobby their cities and counties and craft legal challenges against the bill earlier this month in San Diego.

Both of the top GOP candidates for governor have campaigned on the issue. John Cox encouraged communities in the San Joaquin Valley to reject the policy in Fresno earlier this year. His top intra-party competitor, state Assemblyman Travis Allen, pledged to reverse the law, if elected, and held a "Take Back California" rally at the border on Sunday.

Matt Barreto, a professor of political science and Chicano studies at UC Los Angeles, cited examples in other states where candidates made sanctuary policies a staple of their campaigns. He hasn't seen enough mailers and ads dedicated to the topic to believe it will be a major issue in 2018.

"My view so far is that it’s mostly in the background," Barreto said. "It has not become a centerpiece of the California elections yet. "

Barreto said immigration has the greatest potential impact in races that pit Democrats against Republicans over the the issue and in closely split districts.

California Republican Reps. David Valadao and Jeff Denham, both running for re-election in targeted districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, appeared to carefully toe the line on immigration last week. Reps. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., and Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., more enthusiastically attacked California's law.

The biggest question is whether the rhetoric will be enough to inspire Latinos in California and other parts of the country to head to the polls this year.

The California Immigrant Policy Center and other pro-immigrant groups are working to inspire backlash to the opposition. Nearly 30 cities and counties, including the cities of Davis and Sacramento, have filed amicus briefs in support of California's position in the federal government's lawsuit.

"For every action there is an opposite reaction," Jones said. "Will the blow-back be greater than the gain? That’s where mobilization and voting and turnout become the key issue in these elections."

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