I am strongly pro-immigrant & no fan of Jeff Sessions. But when it comes to California's implementation of sanctuary laws, he’s right: they’re a threat to public safety

 The author in Guatemala, 1994.

The author in Guatemala, 1994.

By Michael Shellenberger

I have been a strong advocate for poor Latin Americans -- including Latin American immigrants to the United States -- for 30 years. I spent half of my senior year in high school living in Nicaragua, learning Spanish, and travelling through Central America.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I protested U.S. military activity in Central America, led delegations of students and professionals to Guatemala and Nicaragua, and helped aid small farmer cooperatives. 

I am a strong advocate of rehabilitation over punishment and no fan of Attorney General Session’s punitive approach to immigration and law enforcement. In 2000, I was arrested protesting Proposition 21, which allowed for the prosecution of juveniles as adults. And I helped kill a similar bill sponsored by then-Senator Sessions in the U.S. Senate.

Today, I support immigration reform legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants an opportunity to earn citizenship in exchange for stronger controls of the border. I thus strongly oppose the deportation of undocumented immigrants who have not broken any laws other than coming to the U.S.

I am opposed to deporting law-abiding undocumented immigrants for two reasons.

First, for decades we have allowed Latin American immigrants to come, work, and build families and communities here. It is inconsistent and unfair to now send them back without giving them a chance to earn citizenship.

Second, there is strong evidence that fears of deportation make undocumented immigrants less likely to seek help from law enforcement, medical professionals, and other public institutions.

As such, I share the concern of Mayor Livvy Schaaf and other sanctuary advocates that the threat of deportation risks keeping immigrants from reporting crime or seeking needed medical or other kinds of attention from public institutions.

At the same time, the way California in general and Mayor Schaaf in particular is implementing its sanctuary city policies is putting lives at risk.

By warning undocumented immigrants of an impending Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid, Mayor Schaaf both imperiled the law enforcement agents involved in the raids (by depriving them the advantage of surprise) and the law-abiding immigrants she and other sanctuary advocates claim to be protecting.

Sessions is not the first person to warn that sanctuary policies risk public safety. When Oakland broke off its working relationship with the Department of Homeland Security last July, it did so over the objections of its Deputy Police Chief, Danielle Outlaw.

When Outlaw testified to the city’s Public Safety Commission she made it clear that Oakland P.D. had never been involved in enforcing civil immigration laws against those who had not committed crimes beyond entering the U.S. without permission.

“We work with [Homeland Security Investigations] on human trafficking, gang investigations, and Ceasefire investigations which focus on the most violent criminals here in Oakland,” testified Outlaw.

Outlaw said that the cooperation between Oakland P.D. & Homeland Security was critical to prosecuting a brutal episode of sex slavery in 2016.

“Acosta and others forced the underage female to stay at the co-conspirator’s residence for over 30 days,” the DoJ said, “prostituting the victim and keeping her against her will..”

Outlaw says that thanks to federal involvement, prosecutors were able to win a plea deal of 12 years in prison which kept the young victim from having to, according to the Justice Department, “testify [in court] and expose her [again] to the very terrible torture and trauma she experienced.”

Lest anyone dismiss Outlaw as some old, anti-immigrant racist, it is worth noting that she was born in 1975, is African American, and is now Chief of Police of Portland — another sanctuary city.

Why do I say that immigrants in particular are at risk of being victims of sanctuary policies? Because the victims of violent crimes tend to be from the same communities as the perpetrators. We don’t know that Acosta’s teen victim was also an immigrant, but it is statistically very likely.

 Former Oakland Deputy Police Chief Danielle Outlaw

Former Oakland Deputy Police Chief Danielle Outlaw

Yesterday, in a live Facebook response to the announcement by Attorney General Sessions of his lawsuit against sanctuary policies, Newsom noted that immigrants commit fewer crimes than non-immigrants. Newsom was right — but he was also being misleading, implying that immigrants are being targeted wily-nily.

While sanctuary advocates highlight the arrests and deportations of law-abiding immigrants, in 2017, 92 percent of in-country (non-border) arrests “had a criminal conviction, a pending criminal charge, were an ICE fugitive or were processed with a reinstated final order” [to leave the country].

This reality may come as a surprise to many of my fellow pro-immigrant rights progressives. The media have, to date, highlighted heartbreaking stories of the minority of non-violent immigrants who have been deported under Trump — not the heartbreaking stories of immigrants who have been victims of violence.

To the extent there has been media attention given to victims of violence perpetrated it has fed tribalism and polarization.

Exhibit A is the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant with multiple felony convictions. Democrats including Hillary Clinton and Diane Feinstein joined Homeland Security in blaming San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy and lax enforcement.

“If the local authorities had merely notified ICE that they were about to release this individual into the community,” an ICE spokesperson said in a statement at time, “ICE could have taken custody of him and had him removed from the country — thus preventing this terrible tragedy.”

But for most progressives — including virtually all of California’s Democratic leaders — the Steinle episode appears to have increased rather than diminished their commitment to sanctuary laws. Gubernatorial front-runner Gavin Newsom insisted San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city was not to blame.

This appears to be both a tribal reaction to the politicization of the episode by Republicans and President Trump as well as a concern that opposition to sanctuary cities and other liberal immigration policies is motivated by racism — a perception that was perhaps magnified by the fact that Steinle was white.

California’s Democratic political establishment appears to believe that defending sanctuary cities against President Donald Trump and Attorney General Sessions is good politics, and they might be right.

The conflict could help Democrats mobilize higher voter turnout among Latino voters this November and win California’s few remaining Republican-held seats in the House of Representatives while maintaining their supermajority in the legislature.

Or it could help Republicans. Pollsters find that Trump voters care more about immigration than Democrats.

Whether or not it’s good politics for Democrats or Republicans or both, it is bad policy for everyone.

Breaking off ties between local and federal law enforcement is an extreme act, one that risks undermining investigations of crimes whose victims are far more likely to be the undocumented Latin American immigrants who sanctuary advocates say they are concerned about than those who were born here like Kate Steinle.

As Outlaw noted, the Oakland P.D.’s work with Homeland Security “allows us to have that federal arm and to have that transnational piece that we just as a local municipal agency do not have access to.”

And announcing ICE raids in advance, as Mayor Schaaf did, does nothing to reduce fear in the undocumented immigrant community and, if anything, increases it through the increased media attention to the local-federal conflict.

A better approach would be for California officials to continue to work with ICE on criminal cases — as it long has — continue to publicly denounce the deportation of law-abiding citizens, and advocate for the federal immigration reform package that a coalition of Republicans and Democrats have twice now (first under Obama and recently again under Trump) almost passed.

While I recognize cynics will dismiss such moderation during an election year as unrealistically idealistic, there is also a hunger in the public for doing what’s right and keeping all people safe.

The Steinle family has played a salutary role in moderating the debate in precisely the same ways I describe above. While they support tougher penalties for violent offenders, they also support more-limited sanctuary laws that protect law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

“We’re a country of kind people and people were being persecuted in Central America,” Jim Steinle, Kate’s father, said in reference to origins of San Francisco’s sanctuary law in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, in Outlaw's tenure as head of Portland's police department we may see a renewed local-federal effort on apprehending dangerous criminals rather than otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

During my run for governor, it is the hunger for pragmatic solutions — not the intractable conflict that motivates both extremes — that I hope to feed.

Michael Shellenberger