A California group has launched a ballot initiative to eliminate sanctuary cities, hoping to take power away from state and local lawmakers who have banned their police and sheriff’s deputies from cooperating with federal deportation authorities.
Their ballot drive got a boost Tuesday when San Francisco’s “sanctuary sheriff” lost his re-election bid, defeated in large part because of his handling of the release earlier this year of an illegal immigrant who now stands accused of killing a woman walking on the city waterfront with her father.
“This should be a warning sign to elected officials in other sanctuary cities that the majority are opposed to their refusing to cooperate with federal authorities,” said Ted Hilton, the man behind the new ballot initiative.
Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi became just the third San Francisco sheriff to lose a reelection after he refused to rescind his gag order preventing his deputies from talking with federal immigration authorities.
His loss reverberated back in Washington, D.C., where Sen. Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor to try to force passage of his bill imposing mandatory federal minimum sentences on illegal immigrants who are deported but try to sneak back into the U.S. That bill is known as “Kate’s Law,” named after Kathryn Steinle, the woman authorities say was killed by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez after he was released under the sheriff’s policy.
“This ought to be a clear choice: With whom do you stand? Do you stand with violent criminal illegal aliens, or do you stand with American citizens?” Mr. Cruz said.
But Minority Leader Harry Reid blocked the Texan’s efforts, saying mandatory sentences would be too expensive, forcing the government to build 20,000 new prison beds. Mr. Reid also doubted criminal penalties would stop potential illegal immigrants from making the trip.
Democrats have rallied around sanctuary cities, saying they should have the right to refuse to cooperate with federal agents when it comes to who gets deported. Democrats argue that having local police cooperate frightens even legal immigrants, who then balk at calling the police to report serious crimes — leaving communities less safe.
Evidence is sketchy on both sides of the argument.
But that hasn’t stopped the issue from becoming a political hot potato.
GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump helped elevate sanctuary cities to a national debate in the wake of Steinle’s killing, calling it proof of his claim that Mexico sends some of its most dangerous citizens to the U.S.
The issue has also been heated in California, where there have been several high-profile killings attributed to illegal immigrants protected by sanctuary policies. The state legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown last year enacted the Trust Act, which limited the types of cooperation local police and sheriffs could have with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Sheriff Mirkarimi’s policy went even further than the Trust Act, however, imposing a virtual ban on communications.
Mr. Hilton’s ballot initiative would effectively overturn the Trust Act, requiring police to notify federal authorities every time they encounter an illegal immigrant. Federal agents could still refuse to deport them, but the state would have done its part.
State and local authorities would also be required to comply with federal agents’ requests to be notified when an immigrant wanted by ICE is to be released, and to honor “detainer” requests asking that immigrants be held for pickup.
Mr. Hilton said he crafted the initiative based on parts of an Arizona law already upheld by the Supreme Court and on legislation pending in the U.S. House and Senate, so he said it’s a solid proposal.
The initiative is in the comment period, and then he’ll have five months next year to gather the more than 360,000 signatures needed to earn a place on the ballot. Because of double-signers and invalid signatures, he’ll probably need to get more than 500,000 signatures just to be safe.
“The issue has come to the forefront. I was trying to do it in 2012 — timing wasn’t right, I was ahead of my time. Now it’s got the attention it deserved,” he said.
Polling earlier this fall from the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley found both Republicans and Democrats opposed sanctuary city policies at rates topping 70 percent.
“We found very broad-based opposition to the idea of sanctuary cities,” said IGS Director Jack Citrin, a professor of political science at UC-Berkeley who has studied immigration for years. “Californians want their local officials to abide by the requests of federal authorities.”
New polling this week by Rasmussen Reports also found support nationally, with 62 percent of voters saying the federal Department of Justice should take legal action to try to stop sanctuary cities. And 56 percent of voters said they supported Kate’s Law, with the mandatory five-year minimum sentence for repeat illegal immigrants.
There’s always been a deep disconnect, however, between elected officials and voters on immigration, and sanctuary cities may be an example of that. Just two weeks before Sheriff Mirkarimi was ousted by voters, the San Francisco City Council approved a nonbinding resolution backing his sanctuary policy in full.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said that disconnect is one reason why Californians are turning to the ballot initiative process, which goes around elected officials and enlists voters to make law directly.
“It’s the ultimate expressions of frustration that the elected officials are not listening to the voters,” Ms. Vaughan said. “They feel that they have to go through this process to accomplish change because their elected officials aren’t listening to them. Whether it’s because of political ideology or the power of money or special interest groups, they feel they need to use this tool.”
Immigrant rights advocates, however, predicted sanctuary policies will prevail.
“What folks need to understand is that keeping police and immigration officials doing their job separately is good public policy,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “No one, documented or undocumented, is running amok committing crimes left and right because a city chooses to exercise prudence when it comes to mixing local policing and deportations.”
He and other opponents have taken to calling anti-sanctuary policies the “Trump Act,” hoping to tie them to the stiff rhetoric coming from the GOP presidential candidate.
“Everything we have fought so hard to preserve, including justice and due process, goes out the window when we listen and give in to bigots, xenophobes and those aspiring for political office with deportation-happy fingers,” Mr. Cabrera said.
Meanwhile, the woman who ousted Sheriff Mirkarimi, former Chief Deputy Vicki Hennessy, has promised to cooperate with federal authorities on a case-by-case basis, which will not do away with that city’s sanctuary policy, but would have likely allowed cooperation in the case of Lopez-Sanchez.