At his State of the State speech last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown was emphatic that he would defend the state’s laws limiting what local law enforcement can do to accommodate federal immigration enforcement efforts.

And then Brown added a promise.

“Let me be clear, we will defend everyone. Every man, woman and child who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state,” he said, provoking a sustained standing ovation from many in the Capitol.

It’s a hollow promise, however, to the tens of thousands of unauthorized immigrants whom the federal government has removed over the past six years Brown has been governor. Many of those deported did not have criminal convictions and lived in what are being called “sanctuary cities.”

“Sanctuary” has a meaning – a place of refuge and safety – and it does not apply to immigrants without the proper papers in these cities. It’s rather evil, in fact, to call a city a sanctuary and communicate any kind of reassurance to those who are not permitted to be here.

Various lists that purport to track sanctuary cities include the city and the county of San Diego among them.

Yet, in fiscal year 2016 (which runs from October through September), the San Diego Field Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 23,729 people from the United States. And 12,857 of them were not criminals – they had no criminal convictions at all. Often ICE would encounter them while seeking out what it calls “fugitives” – people who have committed felonies in the United States and yet were not put into the removal process.

ICE deported 6,722 people last year from the Los Angeles Field Office, which includes all seven counties surrounding the city. And San Francisco, probably the city and county most recognized as a “sanctuary city,” saw 5,918 people deported, including 479 who were not criminals.

Some sanctuary. If it is true that San Diego’s metropolitan area has 170,000 unauthorized immigrants, as the Pew Research Center recently reported, then a significant portion of them are sent away every year.

“I don’t like the term because it gives people a false sense of security. There is not a lot these cities can do. If ICE has a warrant, they can arrest someone,” said Ginger Jacobs, an immigration attorney who just rotated out as chair of the advisory board of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium.

That warrant issue is key. State law prohibits local law enforcement from holding onto people at jails or booking facilities to allow ICE to come get them unless ICE has a warrant.

Photo by David Maung
Photo by David Maung

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore brought that up to the secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, when Kelly came for a visit earlier this month. “What could really help us,” Gore told Kelly in a meeting, according to the pool reporter from the Associated Press, “is if we can get some type of warrant or court order to help them.”

Kelly said he didn’t know if he could deliver more of those.

“That would be a big step in the right direction,” Gore said. “And what the state of California is going to come up with down the road, it makes me shudder. I’m really concerned about it because I don’t want to see politics get in the way of good public safety.”

I asked Gore’s office what makes him “shudder” about what state politicians are talking about.

“Any kind of legislation that prevents us from partnering at all with any kind of federal agency – it’s just a reference to rumors floating around,” said Ryan Keim, a spokesman for Gore.

The local immigration world was buzzing about another exchange at that meeting Gore was attending with Kelly. Shelley Zimmerman, San Diego’s police chief, was also there and asked Kelly for his definition of a sanctuary city. It matters now because the president has said he’ll withhold federal grants to “sanctuary jurisdictions” but it’s up to Kelly and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to determine what those are.

Kelly offered no clarity for Zimmerman: “I don’t have a clue.”

Zimmerman and Gore both agree with the principle behind local law enforcement not going out of its way to assist ICE. The theory is simple: Their jobs are to keep San Diego residents safe. If some residents are afraid that their immigration status will be questioned when they call the police, they might not talk when they should.

The reality is, though, ICE is working with San Diego law enforcement. ICE agents are stationed at the San Diego Central Jail, Las Colinas Detention Facility and the Vista Detention Facility. In other words, if you are undocumented and arrested in San Diego, you are going somewhere where an ICE agent can take custody of you.

“When you hear local law enforcement say we don’t want immigrants to be scared, those are empty words when you have ICE literally stationed in the jails themselves,” said Bardis Vakili, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU.

Photo by David Maung
Photo by David Maung

ICE is quite happy with San Diego. After several exchanges, the Department of Homeland Security authorized this quote from Lauren Mack, an ICE spokeswoman in San Diego: “ICE works closely with our partners in the San Diego law enforcement community. Our longstanding relationships have fostered a strong sense of cooperation and respect at all levels of the government.”

Thus, it would seem San Diego is not in danger of facing the financial wrath of President Donald Trump. The region, though, is also not a sanctuary.

What will be interesting to see is how far this cooperation with ICE will extend. Trump made it clear during his campaign that removing unauthorized immigrants would be a priority, no matter how many millions are here and how long they’ve been here.

The Associated Press sent chills across the country last week, reporting that Trump was considering trying to activate National Guard units to round up unauthorized immigrants. The White House emphatically denied it.

Wall Street Journal reporter Devlin Barrett tweeted that the idea, however, has been around for a while. More important for Trump, though, is another effort: ” the deputizing of many local cops as immigration agents is the biggest goal internally,” Barrett wrote.

This is what local immigrant advocates fear.

“The president can’t deport the numbers of people he says he wants to without more boots on the ground. One traditional way immigrants have been fed into the deportation system is through local police,” Vakili said.

So that’s the question: San Diego does cooperate with ICE. But how far will local leaders go and how hard will Trump push them?

Nobody I talked to knows. As it stands, Maricela Amezola, an immigration attorney in San Diego, said the “sanctuary” label is meaningless for the region. Border Patrol and ICE can work freely here and have enormous assets within 100 miles of the border.

Cities can pass resolutions expressing how welcoming they are to immigrants but nothing has changed. Yet.

“For now, it is not any different than what happened under the Obama administration. Everything they are doing is part of what the law is, and what it allows,” Amezola said.

She did say, though, that she had one client, a mother of three U.S. citizens who was detained in a recent enforcement action. She was not accused of a crime and has not been convicted.

“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Amezola said.

Were ICE to follow previous priority enforcement, Amezola said, she thinks her client would be free.

She is not. There is no sanctuary.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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