While President Trump still dominates the sanctuary city conversation, the battleground has shifted from feds versus the states to one that pits states against their own cities and counties.
From California to Texas to Indiana, states that have attempted to set rules for how much cooperation their police are allowed — or required — to give federal officials on immigration cases are finding that those rules are being challenged, evaded or otherwise thwarted by local officials determined to go their own way.
In some cases, the cities and counties are defying Mr. Trump and state leaders who want to support the president. Other times it’s the states that are defying Mr. Trump, and cities and counties that are rallying to support him.
The president lent his support to those officials Wednesday, holding a powwow with California officials who are resisting their state’s ultra-strict sanctuary law.
“It’s becoming quite popular what you’re doing — [fighting] a law that forces the release of illegal immigrant criminals, drug dealers, gang members and violent predators into your communities,” Mr. Trump told the officials.
While Mr. Trump praised the California rebels, elsewhere the local resistance is decidedly against him.
In Indiana, the cities of Gary and East Chicago are battling against lawsuits saying they are breaking a statewide anti-sanctuary policy.
And in Texas a number of cities fought — and lost — a battle against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ambitious sanctuary crackdown, which even includes penalties against local officials who try to become sanctuaries.
A Federation for American Immigration Reform report last week found the number of sanctuaries has soared under Mr. Trump, with about half of the country now covered by some noncompliance policy.
But that’s only emboldened the backlash.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a sanctuary ban last month.
In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam is now on the clock, after the Legislature sent him an anti-sanctuary bill last week. Mr. Haslam has until this weekend to decide whether to sign or veto the bill, or let it become law without his signature.
Republican Rep. Diane Black, who is looking for a promotion to the governor, has launched a petition demanding he sign it. Nashville’s city council this week urged a veto, warning it would lead to racial profiling.
The experience in Texas, where the state’s anti-sanctuary law has been largely in effect for months, suggests it’s had little effect. The New York Times in March found that Houston police had made just two immigration status inquiries of people they encountered, while Austin reported just a single status inquiry.
Randy Capps, director of U.S. research at the Center for Migration Policy, said the sanctuary debate reflects the polarized politics of the day, with some on both sides moving away from the center.
But he figures most jurisdictions are probably still somewhere in the middle.
“You have a lot of places that have really tried to avoid the issue and taken a middle ground,” he said, though he added it’s becoming tougher as the sanctuary debate gets tied in with election campaigns.
Sanctuary defenders say they’re not pro-illegal immigration or pro-criminal, but say their job is to enforce local laws, not federal immigration matters.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is defending his state’s policies in court, said Mr. Trump’s Wednesday roundtable with sanctuary opponents amounted to “scapegoating and fear-mongering.”
“While President Trump seems to think our local law enforcement agencies should do the job of the federal government, we’re in the business of public safety, not deportation,” he said.
SB 54, California’s main sanctuary law, prohibits state and local police from asking about immigration status, holding people for pickup by immigration authorities, or notifying deportation officers when an illegal immigrant is about to be released from state or local custody. Other state sanctuary laws give immigrants in California custody the right to refuse to talk to federal deportation officers, and limit private businesses in how they are able to cooperate with immigration officers.
Mr. Becerra said the state’s law “works in concert” with federal laws.
The local resisters beg to differ.
Los Alamitos, a small city in Orange County about 20 miles south of Los Angeles, passed a measure in March exempting itself from the state’s SB 54 law, which prohibits local police from offering substantive cooperation to federal immigration authorities.
Huntington Beach, a seaside city of about 200,000 people in Orange County, sued California in state court, hoping to sideline SB 54.
In yet a third form of resistance, Orange County and a number of other jurisdictions have signed onto a federal lawsuit filed by the Trump administration asking U.S. courts to rule SB 54 is unconstitutional because it tramples on the federal government’s power to control immigration.
“This is your Republican resistance right here,” Melissa Melendez, a member of the California Assembly, told Mr. Trump at Wednesday’s meeting.
Michael Gates, the city attorney in Huntington Beach, said he was “a little surprised” the White House didn’t invite officials from his city to the meeting with Mr. Trump.
“What we’ve advanced against the state, what we’ve filed in court is much much stronger than anything else the other cities have done,” he told The Washington Times.
He was confident the sanctuary state law “on its face” was unconstitutional.
Mr. Capps, at the Migration Policy Institute, said the big legal question is what level of government is going to win among the localities, the states and the feds.
He said there’s a convincing argument that states will prevail, which could leave in force both pro-sanctuary laws, like California’s, and anti-sanctuary laws, like Texas’s, on the books.
But James Bopp Jr., an Indiana lawyer representing residents who are challenging the sanctuary policies in Gary and East Chicago, said the order of primacy is clearly on the federal side.
“States are obligated to follow, and local governments are obligated to follow federal law, and federal law is supreme under the Constitution,” he said. “It’s not up to individual public officials to decide what laws they’re going to follow and what laws they’re not going to follow.”
“We fought a civil war over the question,” he added. “The nullification side lost. Now interestingly, of course, at that time the Democrats were in favor of nullification to protect slavery. Now they’re in favor of nullification to protect illegal immigrants. So there is a consistency there.”
He said the Gary and East Chicago sanctuary policies even order police to avoid arresting illegal immigrants if there’s any other alternative. While it’s unclear what alternatives there would be in a given case, he said the effect of that policy is to make every officer fear second-guessing by supervisors.
“In order to protect them from deportation, they want to protect them from being charged with crimes,” he said.