Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, pictured at a 2016 forum, said SB 54 has led to ICE raids in which non-criminal immigrants are arrested. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

One of the things you don’t expect to hear at a press conference of local Republicans outraged about “sanctuary” laws is a claim that they want to protect undocumented immigrants and feel like they would do it better than Democrats.

But that’s what we saw last week.

Diane Harkey is a Republican running for Congress and one of those who participated in the press event on April 16, organized by Carl DeMaio. There, she told the story of a business owner with one longtime employee – a man who had risen to management level.  He suddenly disappeared, she said. He was apparently afraid of an audit that agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement would be carrying out.

Harkey didn’t blame ICE for coming after this man. She didn’t criticize President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. She blamed California Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature – specifically Senate Bill 54, which she and her counterparts pledged to help strike down at the courts or by ballot measure, if necessary.

She said the new law provoked ICE agents to go after non-criminals.

“Nobody wants that. And that didn’t happen before. It just didn’t happen before. They were picking up violent criminals at the jails. There was cooperation at the jails. Now they’re going into businesses,” Harkey said.

Sam Abed, Escondido’s mayor, had a similar take.

“The concern among the Hispanic community is growing because now ICE is separating families. They went to a transit station, right. They did a sweep without our police involvement, without our police knowledge. What did they do? They arrested and deported 115 of them, of illegal immigrants. Not all of them are criminals. That’s what SB 54 is doing to our immigrant community, guys,” he said.

The problem is that none of this is true.

Start with Harkey’s claim that “nobody” wants law-abiding, working immigrants to be removed from the country. There most certainly are people who want to remove all unauthorized immigrants from the country.

Trump himself revoked all guidance his predecessor had put in place prioritizing the removal of criminals. The Border Patrol union chief in San Diego told us his colleagues now felt unshackled and were clearly relieved to stop prioritizing criminals. That was inappropriate governance that flouted the rule of law, he said.

Given every opportunity to clarify otherwise, Trump has regularly confirmed all unauthorized immigrants should be removed.

But Harkey is also wrong that it didn’t happen before – that the nice man she described who disappeared would not have had any trouble from ICE before California passed SB 54.

The U-T recently found that from October to December 2017 – a period before SB 54 went into effect – ICE arrested more people with no criminal history here than anywhere else in the country: 1,622.

And if ICE was triggered to go into neighborhoods because of California-style laws restricting their interaction with local law enforcement, it would surely show in the data from other areas without those laws. But the region with the second-highest number of arrests of people not accused of any crime was Georgia, which is no California. ProPublica recently documented the extreme enforcement efforts taking place in the tri-state region of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware, where more so-called “at-large” arrests of noncriminal immigrants are occurring than anywhere in the country.

Again, these places do not have SB 54-style laws.

Workplace raids are also happening. In Tennessee – definitely no sanctuary state – a raid described as the biggest in a decade targeted a meat-packing plant and stunned the community.

Harkey’s comment was not only incorrect but wildly naïve. Even under President Barack Obama, immigrants not accused of any crimes were routinely removed.

Abed said at the press conference that immigration agents once stationed in San Diego County’s three jails are now roaming and disrupting Latino communities like at that sweep he mentioned.

But ICE itself, not shy about criticizing the law, won’t say that. ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack told VOSD’s Maya Srikrishnan that the raid in Escondido Abed mentioned was routine.

The biggest local impact from the new law, we noted before it went into effect, was that ICE would lose its permanent space in local jails.

But did the new law really change much? Doesn’t seem like it. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore says ICE agents are still welcome in the jails. They just lost permanent office space.

And can the sheriff notify ICE when he is releasing someone the agency may want? Yes, he can. The new law allows the Sheriff’s Department to notify ICE if it’s releasing someone who was convicted of a serious felony. And the sheriff can similarly transfer custody to ICE.

Further, ICE can get anyone with a warrant. The law did not trigger the release of violent felons.

Gore told us he was disappointed that some misdemeanors were not included in SB 54 but said he can work with the law.

When asked about the sheriff’s statements like this, Harkey said it was not what he really thinks.

“Sheriff Gore may be under a little bit of political pressure,” she said.

This is an incredible insult. If the new law had created such a dangerous situation (County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said the law was triggering the release of people who have committed crimes and “want to do us harm just because we’re Americans”) why wouldn’t Gore say something?

If he wouldn’t just because of politics, that would mean he’s a coward.

I don’t think he’s a coward. I think he sees the truth. The Democrats passed a law that marginally modifies older laws and yes, clearly restricts how much the sheriff and police chiefs can cooperate with ICE. It provides as much accountability and data reporting demands on local cops as the state could muster.

ICE can still go into jails. The sheriff can still participate in joint task forces along the border and in special operations. And if a bad guy committed one of 800 crimes outlined in the law, the sheriff can tell ICE he’s getting out of jail.

How do we get from that to claims that these people are going to eat our children?

The Democrats made an egregious miscalculation: They knew how limited their law was, but they exploited fears and provided false assurances to a vulnerable population. They explained that they would, as Brown said after Trump’s election, “defend everyone. Every man, woman and child who has come here for a better life.”

They embraced the term “sanctuary.” On Wednesday, the former leader of the state Senate, who wrote SB 54, Kevin De Leon, came to San Diego to tout what good outcomes “sanctuary policies” had provoked.

The actual law is so complex and nuanced, it is hard to communicate about it effectively. So “sanctuary” does the trick. But that’s a dangerous gamble. If you provide “sanctuary” by holding back cops, and cops deal with bad people, then are you offering sanctuary to bad people?

That’s the logic Republicans are exploiting.

The president and ICE are happy to help. ICE wants to deport people. They’re unshackled. Of course they’re resistant to California’s laws. If you want to deport millions of people, you can’t do that without mobilizing – or outright deputizing – local police.

Courts have, again and again, affirmed a state’s right to refuse to enforce federal laws. So what we’re, as Californians, as San Diegans, talking about is whether we want to participate in this deportation force or not.

Sacramento leaders should have been completely honest about how little they can do. Their only interest is in making sure people – including undocumented immigrants – feel comfortable interacting with local police and reporting crimes in their communities.

They could bar all law enforcement from ever speaking to federal agents. But local law enforcement and ICE already share so much data, so many systems, that the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t even need to be able to call Border Patrol when its officers are dealing with an undocumented immigrant. Border Patrol just shows up. Cooperation is de facto.

On the other side, Republicans embracing the darkest sides of this debate need to think about whether they truly want local police participating in mass deportation efforts. And if they don’t want law-abiding immigrants to be hassled – as Abed and Harkey said – then I would expect them to put as much pressure on the federal government as they are on the state government to protect those families.

I’d expect them to complain about the feds removing that man who loyally served his boss for decades only to disappear, or the ICE agents detaining the workers schlepping to jobs at Escondido’s transit station.

If they don’t do that, then it would reveal their concerns about these families to be vacuous and their movement to be just a bizarre entanglement of ferocity and hesitation.

Because there is only one agency removing them from the country, and it’s not the state of California.

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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