In the good old days, pre-2017, designating a city a sanctuary city was a largely symbolic act, partly because U.S. commerce exploits illegal immigration and partly because the meaning isn’t as precise as it might be. In general, it means that local law enforcement in that jurisdiction won’t arrest undocumented residents merely for being undocumented and won’t help immigration officials go looking for targets. Many law enforcement agencies support the designation because they know that undocumented crime victims are reluctant to report crimes for fear of deportation and that crime witnesses who happen to be undocumented are reluctant to cooperate for the same reason.
Sanctuary status also generally means that the jurisdictions’ law enforcement agencies, or their jails, won’t automatically notify federal immigration officials when an undocumented resident is being released from custody. In cases of clearly dangerous inmates, however, local authorities often find ways to tip off the feds regardless of City Council resolutions to the contrary.
Things are changing, perhaps with remarkable speed, now that Donald Trump is in office. Sometime soon, federal immigration authorities will likely step up their efforts to track down people who are in this country illegally. Trump has signaled that local law enforcement agencies will be encouraged, or even required, to participate in the round-up. Those that don’t join in stand to lose some of their federal funding – assuming the Trump administration can actually figure out how to accomplish such a thing.
Which brings us to Salinas, where the City Council is scheduled Tuesday night to meet behind closed doors to discuss whether it should reconsider its recent vote to reject sanctuary status for their heavily Latino municipality.
The sanctuary city designation was voted down by a 4-3 count, with the majority arguing that they didn’t want to risk having the city lose federal grants – even at the risk of essentially outlawing a large slice of the city’s population. The president has threatened to withdraw federal funding for sanctuary cities. In California alone, there are about 40 sanctuary of them, and at last count, 46 of the 58 California counties had adopted sanctuary status, including Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.
I won’t get too worked up here about the closed-door part, at least not yet. The discussion is scheduled for executive session under the guise that it pertains to potential litigation. I suspect that someone in power will realize before the Tuesday session that the real reason to shut the public out of the discussion has to do with the political sensitivity of the subject, which makes the backroom nature of the discussion illegal.
(The discussion was scheduled at the request of Councilman Tony Villegas, one of four council members who voted against sanctuary status, which was beaten back by a 4-3 vote. Because the council action upset a large share of the community, Villegas has called for a revote, which creates issues of parliamentary procedure. City officials say what to do next needs to be hashed out in private to avoid embarrassing anyone. As reasons go, that’s one of the worst.)
Voting for sanctuary city status were Tony Barrera, Gloria De La Rosa and council newcomer Scott Davis. Davis’ position is highly significant considering that he is a Monterey County sheriff’s deputy who, as a leader of the deputy sheriff’s union, provided heavy support for Sheriff Steve Bernal’s election campaign. Bernal announced early in his term that he would cooperate with federal immigration officials whenever possible.
Davis not only supported the sanctuary city motion; he made it, explaining that it was strongly supported by residents of his heavily Latino district.
When others on the council argue that sanctuary status could jeopardize as much as $20 million in federal grants annually, Davis notes that the resolution allows for the matter to be revisited if Trump’s threats turn real and he argues that losing the money wouldn’t be the end of the world. The federal grants amount to about 10 percent of the budget.
“What I would like to see is if the federal government is going to pull in purse strings and try to manipulate local communities, we don’t rely on federal grants,” he told the Monterey County Weekly last month. “How plausible that is remains to be seen.”
Sanctuary city designations have not won unanimous support from law enforcement but they have received strong support. That’s because officers on the street say that when residents here illegally fear any contact with officialdom, it becomes almost impossible to obtain their cooperation when crime occurs.
The defining issue in Salinas is crime but the perpetrators, overwhelmingly, are native-born gang members. The homicide rate is one of the highest in California and, statistically, it is one of the unsafest places in the United States to be young and Latino — legal or illegal. Heavy gang involvement in much of the violence puts law enforcement at a huge disadvantage. Sending crime victims and witnesses underground for fear of deportation would only make things worse.
If the Salinas council does not reverse itself, it is telling the citizenry that a balanced budget is more important than fighting crime. And at some point, the message will become colder yet: Staying out of trouble and keeping your head down isn’t going to help when they come for you. The City Council should vote again and get it right this time.