Sheriffs on the frontlines of immigration debate in California are warning that the sanctuary state law the legislature passed over the weekend ties law enforcement's hands too tightly and is only inviting more tragedy when it comes to illegal immigrants who have repeatedly committed serious crimes.
"It's a hazardous law for Californians and people sworn to protect and serve Californians and we would like to see it changed," Bill Brown, the sheriff for Santa Barbara County who serves as president of the California State Sheriffs Association, told the Washington Free Beacon.
"I hope next year we can be catalysts for some type of legislative fix," he added, giving credit to Gov. Jerry Brown for late modifications to the bill in response to law enforcement concern.
The law passed along straight party-lines, and, considering the lopsided Democratic majority in both houses in the state legislature, law enforcement leaders predict that only a high-profile tragedy or heinous crime could shift the political will enough to modify the bill.
"I do believe those who voted for this law are making California less safe, and at some point, there is going to be an incident that is going to backfire on the legislature when one of these criminal aliens is released," said Michael Durant, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a union representing 70,000 law enforcement officers in California and Nevada.
The passage of the "California Values Act" this week escalated California's battle with the Trump administration on several fronts, as leading local politicians try to insulate the heavily Democratic state from the administration's immigration policies.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to withhold federal grants for states that refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests to hold illegal immigrants arrested or convicted of crimes until federal authorities can pick them up and potentially deport them.
States and local municipalities have fought back; late last week a federal judge in Chicago blocked Sessions attempt to withhold grant funding from the sanctuary cities.
California's new sanctuary state law, the most far-reaching of its kind in the country, would limit what state and local law enforcement officials can communicate to federal immigration authorities, and prevents officers from questioning and holding people on immigration-only violations.
It would also prevent California schools, hospitals, libraries, and courthouses from enforcing federal immigration laws on its premises.
State Sen. Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles and other Democratic party leaders say the law is necessary to protect immigrant families from being separated after Trump pledged to phase out an Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Trump last week indicated he would sign a congressional fix to protect the children, known as DREAMers, without demanding that Congress immediately provide money to build his promised border wall.
Critics say the law is mere symbolism, because local police in the state never engage in immigration enforcement in the field or try to inquire about a person's immigration status, leaving that job to federal authorities.
Brown says police across the state have spent years working with advocacy groups for immigrants to foster a relationship of trust so victims of or witnesses to crimes can work with them without fear of deportation.
Only in cases in which local law enforcement officials see illegal immigrants committing major crimes or returning to their custody for serious repeat offenses do they comply with ICE notifications to remove offenders from their communities
In the final weeks before the bill's passage, Gov. Brown stepped in to negotiate changes to ensure that the law didn't prevent local law enforcement officers from notifying federal immigration agents about the release of dangerous convicted criminals.
The changes included allowing officers to pass along information to ICE about inmates who have previously been deported for a violent felony or are serving time on a misdemeanor or felony and have a prior serious or violent felony conviction.
De Leon, the lead sponsor, said the changes didn't gut the intent of the bill and represented a major compromise between law enforcement officials and advocates.
"These amendments do not mean to erode the core mission of this measure, which is to protect hardworking families that have contributed greatly to our culture and the economy," De Leon said on the Senate floor early Saturday morning. "This is a measure that reflects the values of who we are as a great state."
Sheriff Brown said he welcomed those changes, which made the bill much better. However, he still thinks the threshold for notifying ICE is too high, especially when it comes to drunk-driving offenses.
"Drunk-driving is not a trivial matter," he said. "There are people killed all the time on our highways as a result of drunk driving."
Brown pointed to a high-profile crash early this year in San Diego in which the drunken-driving hit-and-run suspect allegedly hit a family driving home after a trip to Disneyland, badly injuring a six-year-old boy. The suspect, who was in the country illegally, had previously been deported 15 times and had a criminal history including arrests on domestic violence allegations.
Groups opposed to Trump's immigration policies have warned against using individual drunk-driving incidents involving unauthorized immigrants as a rationale for state-wide or federal efforts to crackdown on illegal immigrants.
"Drunk-driving is a nation-wide problem that has affected the lives of far too many," Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, said earlier this year. "Using the pain and suffering of victims and their families to vilify a single community is irresponsible and unhelpful. We all need to work together, in an atmosphere of trust in order to solve safety issues."
Brown said the law's threshold is still too high with regard to drunk driving.
"Under the law as it stands now, we will be barred from notifying ICE unless an illegal immigrant arrested for drunk-driving is charged with committing a felony—meaning they already killed or injured someone, or they have been convicted for drunken-driving four times in a 10-year period," he said.
Last year alone Santa Barbara county received a roughly 650 notices from ICE asking for notifications of any arrests of illegal immigrants with criminal records, Brown said. Of those, he said they had 250 people come into their custody that matched the ICE request, and of those 250, an estimated 30 were facing drunk-driving charges.
Additionally, the new law would prevent police from notifying ICE of self-admitted members of MS-13 and other gangs if California police arrest them for misdemeanor crimes such as possession of narcotics or driving without a license, Brown said. It also imposes a lot of additional reporting and other time-consuming burdens on police as they try to determine if the crimes the illegal immigrants have committed fall into a complicated matrix of what can and cannot trigger ICE notifications.
For instance, police are barred from calling ICE on repeat-offender thieves if the stolen property does not meet a $950 threshold for each theft.
"They can steal as many times as they would like, as long as what they steal is below $950 each time, and we would be precluded from calling ICE," he said.