California’s sheriffs are calling on the GOP-controlled Congress to intervene and pass a federal law to change the state’s sanctuary state status, warning the law that ties their hands too tightly will only increase the chances of another high-profile tragedy.
The sanctuary state law, which Gov. Jerry Brown (D.) signed Thursday but doesn't go into effect until January, is the most far-reaching of its kind in the country and places sharp limits on how local law enforcement agencies can communicate with federal immigration authorities.
It would also make it a crime to enforce federal immigration laws on the premises of all schools, hospitals, libraries, and courthouses in state, which is home to an estimated two million immigrants.
Making the entire state a sanctuary for illegal immigrants is California's latest salvo in its war with President Donald Trump over immigration policy, but law enforcement officials say it's the state’s citizens who will pay the price with higher crime rates and avoidable tragedies.
National Sheriffs' Association Executive Director and CEO Jonathan Thompson said Thursday that sheriffs across the country are deeply "saddened and disappointed" that the governor signed this "reckless" bill into law.
"It is unfortunate that California’s law enforcement has become pawns in this political game, but they will continue to do their jobs diligently to protect their communities," he said.
"We also implore leaders in Washington to take action and pass sensible legislation that would prevent careless legislation from hamstringing law enforcement and would give them the tools to combat dangerous policies like this."
Most of the state’s sheriffs argue that the law limits their ability to remove dangerous, repeat offenders from their communities.
They remain concerned despite late changes that Gov. Brown helped negotiate that would grant police the ability to inform Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials of violent felons police have taken into custody.
Sheriffs said the law would prevent police from notifying ICE of self-admitted members of MS-13 or other gangs if they were arrested for misdemeanor crimes such as assault and battery, possession of narcotics, being under the influence of narcotics, or driving without a license.
"If a gang member is arrested or charged with misdemeanor or a felony that is not covered by the law, we would be precluded from contacting ICE," California State Sherrifs' Associate President Bill Brown told the Washington Free Beacon.
"My concern is that, statewide, we’re going to have this issue—that you end up with a known gang member in custody for a particular crime that is not covered and we wouldn’t be able to make that notification."
Police also worry that the law is too light on illegal immigrants who have been arrested for drunk driving. Police can only call federal immigration authorities if they arrest an illegal immigrant with a violent felony on his or her record. In California, a person must be convicted four times in a decade for it to be considered a felony, law enforcement sources said.
They have repeatedly predicted that the law will open the door to another high-profile tragedy similar to Kathryn "Kate" Steinle’s death in 2015 at the hand of an illegal immigrant who had been deported a total of five times.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to stop other cities and states from following California's lead.
"The State of California has now codified a commitment to returning criminal aliens back onto our streets, which undermines public safety, national security, and law enforcement," said Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley.
"Given the multiple high-profile incidents that have occurred in California in recent years, it is especially disappointing that state leaders have made it law to limit cooperation between local jurisdictions and immigration authorities attempting to keep Californians safe," he added.
Sessions has threatened to pull federal law enforcement block grants for sanctuary cities and counties that do not comply with ICE requests to hold immigrants arrested or convicted of crimes until federal authorities can pick them up and potentially deport them.
A federal judge in Chicago blocked Sessions' attempt to withhold funding from these cities and states in September. The Justice Department is appealing that ruling and has asked the judge to only apply the ruling to the city of Chicago, which brought the suit, while allowing Sessions to withhold federal grants to other sanctuary cities and states.
The judge could rule as early as next week on that request. With majority-Democratic states digging in on the issue and more legal action expected, the Supreme Court will likely have to levy any final legal resolution.
Groups opposed to Trump’s immigration policies say the sanctuary state law is needed to prevent police from targeting and arresting illegal immigrants for minor crimes and then deporting them, separating families in the process.
The San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium applauded Brown's decision to sign the bill, officially dubbed the "California Values Act" into law.
"As a border community where we have more immigration officials than local law enforcement, this bill is critical to protecting our community members," the group said in a statement. "The ‘California Values Act’ reaffirms our state’s commitment to valuing and protecting all of its residents, no matter where they come from, and sends a powerful message of inclusion across the nation."
Brown and other law enforcement officials in the state argue that argument is misguided because they do nothing to target illegal immigrants in their communities.
Instead, they have spent years trying to cultivate a relationship of trust with the immigrant community so that witnesses and victims of crimes will work with them without fear of being deported.
At the federal level, Sessions and other Justice Department officials have tried to educate the public on the dark side of illegal immigration and sanctuary policies.
During a speech in Philadelphia in July, Sessions complained that some sanctuary cities were already refusing to turn over illegal immigrants, including members of MS-13.
"They are giving sanctuary not to their law-abiding residents; they are giving sanctuary to criminals," he said. "It saddens me that one of those jurisdictions is Philadelphia."
He recalled an incident in 2015 in which Philadelphia’s sanctuary policies prevented a previously deported illegal immigrant from being removed by ICE. Instead, he was released and a year later was charged with raping a child.
He also recalled a California incident: meeting Juan Pina, the father of a 14-year-old girl named Christy Sue who was raped, murdered, and left in a field.
"She was not the first American girl this man is alleged to have raped and murdered, neither was she the second," Sessions said, without mentioning if the state's sanctuary laws had prevented ICE from deporting him.
"This man was arrested, released and went back and forth from Mexico twice before Christy Sue was killed," Sessions said. "She should still be alive today."