California becomes ‘sanctuary state’ in rebuke of Trump immigration policy

In a sharp rebuke to President Trump’s expanded deportation orders, Gov. Jerry Brown signed landmark “sanctuary state” legislation Thursday, vastly limiting who state and local law enforcement agencies can hold, question and transfer at the request of federal immigration authorities.

Senate Bill 54, which takes effect in January, has been hailed as part of a broader effort by majority Democrats in the California Legislature to shield more than 2.3 million immigrants living illegally in the state. Weeks before Brown’s signature made it law, it was met with swift denunciations from Trump administration officials and became the focus of a national debate over how far states and cities can go to prevent their officers from enforcing federal immigration laws.

Brown took the unusual step of penning a signing message in support of SB 54. He called the legislation a balanced measure that would allow police and sheriff’s agencies to continue targeting dangerous criminals, while protecting hardworking families without legal residency in the country.

Legal experts have said federal officials may try to block the law in court to keep it from being implemented, though some doubt such challenges would be successful.

Brown’s decision comes as local and state governments are locked in legal battles with U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions over his move to slash federal grant funding from “sanctuary jurisdictions,” where city and county agencies are limited when working with federal immigration officials. A Chicago federal judge largely blocked Sessions’ effort just hours before SB 54 cleared the Legislature on Sept. 16.

Last month, Sessions called California’s sanctuary state bill “unconscionable.” Other federal officials also have sounded off against SB 54, suggesting illegal immigration is tied to increases in violent crime.

Throughout his campaign and in his tenure as president, Trump has tried to make the same connection, showcasing the relatives of people killed by immigrants in the country illegally. And one of his earliest executive orders put cities and counties on alert that they would lose federal funding if law enforcement did not cooperate with immigration agents.

The move has struck a bitter chord in California, home to at least 35 cities that have embraced the “sanctuary” label, and where Brown and Democratic lawmakers have passed legislation to extend financial aid, healthcare and driver’s licenses to thousands of unauthorized immigrants.

In some places, the “sanctuary city” name is largely a symbolic message of political support for immigrants without legal residency. But other cities, most notably San Francisco and most recently Los Angeles, have cut ties with federal immigration officials and sought to build up social services for families, including city-funded legal aid.

In a statement released hours after the bill was sent to Brown’s desk, Department of Justice spokesman Devin O’Malley said that “state lawmakers inexplicably voted today to return criminal aliens back onto our streets.”

The bill’s author, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles), has countered that the state law is defensible in court and will send a strong message against new federal policies that he argues have pushed some families further into the shadows. Research has shown sanctuary cities have lower crime rates and that immigrants generally commit fewer crimes than U.S. citizens.

The final language of the new law was the result of months of tough negotiations between Brown, De León and law enforcement officials. It was the centerpiece of this year’s legislative proposals in Sacramento that sought to challenge Trump’s stance on illegal immigration and provide protections for families amid his threats of mass deportations.

The new law will largely prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from using either personnel or funds to hold, question or share information about people with federal immigration agents unless those individuals have been convicted of one or more offenses from a list of 800 crimes outlined in a 2013 state law.

Federal immigration authorities will still be able to work with state corrections officials — a key concession Brown had demanded — and will be able to enter county jails to question immigrants. But the state attorney general’s office will be required to publish guidelines and training recommendations to limit immigration agents’ access to personal information. And all law enforcement agencies will have to produce annual reports on their participation in task forces that involve federal agencies, as well as on the people they transfer to immigration authorities.

The new law doesn’t specify what happens if local law enforcement agencies don’t comply with the new rules. But the attorney general has broad authority under the state Constitution to prosecute police and sheriff’s agencies that don’t comply.

For many officers across the state, the expanded restrictions won’t change much. Some police and sheriff’s agencies already have developed similar boundaries against working with immigration agents, either through their own policies or under local “sanctuary city” rules.

For other officers, though, the legislation would set new guidelines and has long divided police chiefs and sheriffs.

The California Police Chiefs Assn. moved its official position from opposed to neutral after final changes to the bill last month, but the California Sheriffs Assn. remained opposed.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck supported the bill, joining others who said entangling police and federal immigration forces can have a negative effect on public safety, because crime victims and witnesses without legal status may refuse to come forward to authorities out of fear of deportation. L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell was a vocal opponent. Even so, he said the final version of the bill, though not perfect, “reflects much of what the LASD implemented years ago and the work is well underway.”

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