Debate Rages Over California’s ‘Sanctuary State’ Law

The inmates are up before dawn, waiting in glass-and-steel holding cells and dressed in yellow-green jumpsuits and plastic slippers.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on a raid in Los Angeles. (Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The jumpsuits are a signal that here inside the Orange County Jail, they’re no longer county inmates but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees awaiting transfer. Known by deputies and ICE as the Supermax of the West, the jail houses felons with violent criminal records who are also undocumented immigrants.

The deputy on duty scans the prisoners and then counts the names on his list. About three dozen of them await the arrival of the ICE bus that will take them to federal prison, immigration court or somewhere else to be deported.

Four detainees are wearing street clothes and gripping plastic bags. The deputy explains that they’re the ones heading out of the country.

The deputy works for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, but he’s also an ICE compliance officer at the only jail in California that allows local deputies to be trained as immigration officers. Orange County deputies are trained by ICE under an agreement known as the 287(g) program, where the deputies serve as immigration enforcement in the jail.

But under a proposed California law, that partnership with ICE would end. And many law enforcement officials aren’t happy about it.

A controversial law

State Sen. President Kevin de León is author of the legislation, also known as the “sanctuary state” law. It’s being debated by the state Assembly after the state Senate passed it in April.

De León said it would expand so-called “sanctuary city” policies — enacted around the country to shelter immigrants from President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration — by prohibiting local law enforcement from acting as federal immigration officers.

“Here in California, we strongly defend family values because we don’t believe a government should separate a mother from her child or any child should be separated from her father,” he said.

De León believes undocumented immigrants will stop reporting crimes or cooperating with local police, affecting public safety.

The senator also points to ICE figures showing an increase in non-criminal arrests of undocumented immigrants — which reflect a serious change in policing in the streets, he said.

While many California municipalities have declared themselves sanctuary cities, his law would set uniform guidelines, especially when it comes to policing, he said. It also would lease beds in county jails to ICE.

“What I don’t want to do is increase crime,” de León added. “You will increase crime if local police are acting as cogs of the Trump deportation machine.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a photo on Feb. 10, 2017, of its officers arresting an unidentified foreign national the day before.

But many law enforcement officers disagree.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens disputes de León’s suggestion that her deputies are de facto ICE officers.

“My officers do not do any immigration enforcement on the street,” said Hutchens, a vocal critic of the so-called Sanctuary State law. “We do not ask people where they’re from or their status in this country.”

Hutchens believes the law would endanger public safety by limiting cooperation between federal agencies and local law enforcement, especially in jails such as Orange County’s.

The law, SB 54, does state that local law enforcement should inform ICE when the county jails undocumented immigrants convicted of a violent felony. But Sheriff Hutchens believes the law still builds a wall between her agency and ICE.

“They’re not going to be the one called when someone gets killed by an individual who was undocumented (and) in custody for a serious offense, and I let go and did not notify ICE,” said Hutchens. “The public’s going to be angry at the sheriff and they should be if I had the ability to protect them and I did not.”

‘It’s anti-Trump’

Some law enforcement officials contend de León’s law would result in more criminals being released into neighborhoods, forcing ICE forced to execute warrants on the streets. They argue this would create more of a public safety hazard and lead to more arrests of non-violent undocumented immigrant arrests.

“There’s a lot of bills in Sacramento right now that are tying our hands and keeping us from doing the jobs we’re elected to do, which is to protect the citizens in our county,” said Hutchens. “It’s very political. It’s anti-Trump.”

In nearby Kern County, Sheriff Donny Youngblood echoes many of Sheriff Hutchens’ concerns, calling the “sanctuary state” law “absurd.”

Sheriff Youngblood, who says he’s conservative and supports the Trump administration’s harder line on illegal immigration, believes SB 54 gives “sanctuary to criminals.”

Youngblood says that since Trump took office there’s been stronger cooperation between ICE and his agency in the county jail.

“We’ve noticed a distinct difference with our federal partners in immigration in doing their jobs,” he said. “I think we’re removing serious criminals.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers looking for a fugitive migrant question his mother during a morning raid on his residence in Riverside. (Credit: Los Angeles Times)

Youngblood lamented working for a conservative county in a progressive state overwhelmingly run by Democrats in Sacramento.

“From my standpoint, it’s just absolutely crazy to look at some of the bills coming out of there,” he said.

But de León said of his proposed law, “I don’t think it’s crazy at all.”

As a leader of the California senate, he said he seeks to protect the values of his state and send a message to the Trump White House.

“Nowhere in my lifetime have I ever felt this real insecurity with the current President of the United States, who I believe is a very clear and present danger to our economic prosperity and to the fabric of who we are as a great nation,” he said.

Meanwhile, back in Orange County, the white Department of Homeland Security bus arrives to pick up the detainees. One by one, the federal officers place them in handcuffs.

They board the bus, heading to immigration court, federal prison or another country.