Anaheim Leaders Criticized for Muddled Approach to Sanctuary City Issue

David P. Senner for Voice of OC

The Anaheim City Council during a recent public meeting.

Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory was just days old when public officials throughout California began reacting.

On the Monday after Election Day, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck announced that his department wouldn’t help Trump deport immigrants. The following day, Santa Ana City Council members unequivocally declared theirs a sanctuary city.

Then, in early December on the first day of the state Legislature’s new session, state Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) announced plans for sweeping legislation to protect unauthorized immigrants.

But with less than two weeks to go before Trump’s inauguration, Anaheim, a majority Latino city with a large population of Arab Americans, has not approached the issue with the same urgency.

Late last month, the council passed a proposal by newly elected Councilman Jose Moreno to establish a broadly defined program to promote immigrant integration with no particulars about what the program would entail.

The measure calls for the creation of a citizen task force within the mayor’s office to examine whether the city should take part in a national initiative called “Welcoming America” and determine if that would include specific protections for unauthorized immigrants.

However, while Moreno’s proposal was narrowly approved, it drew criticism from people across the political spectrum.

It did not satisfy many of the residents and advocates who turned out to council meetings in the days and weeks following the election and called on the city to send a message that no city resources will be used to aid federal immigration authorities.

“I think a big, bold loud statement needs to be made to dampen the anti-immigrant rhetoric that is alive in Orange County, and Anaheim in particular,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of Orange County Communities Organizing for Responsible Development (OCCORD), a grassroots advocacy group based in Anaheim.

Syed referred to a rally held at Pearson Park by the Ku Klux Klan in February and a string of threatening letters recently sent to local mosques.

“Anaheim is not the city of kindness as the mayor envisions…it’s a hub of hatred, unfortunately, one of the primary centers of hatred in Orange County,” Syed added.

Moreno said it was important for city leaders to send a strong message that they do not support anti-immigrant rhetoric “by tacit silence or even agreement,” but also insisted that the council should not be “prescriptive” in its approach and allow residents to decide through the task force.

Moreno’s vague approach irked some members of the council.

“We’re all getting a lot of questions about ‘what does this mean,’” said Councilwoman Kris Murray, who last year pushed a resolution to condemn anti-immigrant rhetoric by then-candidate Trump. Murray did not say whether or not she would support any resolutions related to undocumented immigrants.

“I think the public has a right to know if this is something that is more a substantive programmatic change or a more of an outreach program. It’s just not clear.”

What is a “Sanctuary City?”

While Santa Ana, a city that is nearly 80 percent Latino and has an all-Latino council, faced little opposition in its sanctuary city declaration, it remains a politically perilous term in most parts of Orange County.

Nearly two weeks before the November 8 election, Anaheim City Council candidate Mark Lopez, a Republican, drew swift condemnation from the Orange County Republican Party for the answer he gave to a question about sanctuary cities at a debate hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Asked whether he would support Anaheim designating itself a sanctuary city, Lopez avoided using that term but said he is against deportations that would separate families, noting that he sponsored his formerly unauthorized father for citizenship. He also said he is opposed to local authorities using resources on immigration enforcement.

Lopez’s remarks prompted the OC GOP to pull funding for Lopez, who received their endorsement in his race. Lopez later paid for a robocall to constituents denying any support for declaring Anaheim a sanctuary city, and the party restored funding for his campaign.

Moreno says confusion around the term cuts both ways and may give a false sense of security to immigrants.

“In a sanctuary city, if ICE comes with a federal warrant for your arrest, there’s nothing anyone can do, unless you run into a church,” said Moreno. “It’s a misnomer…what the city is really saying is, ‘we’re keeping you safe from ourselves. We will not go after you.’”

The most common policies prohibit city employees, including law enforcement, from asking people about their immigration status.

California’s Trust Act also prohibits local law enforcements from complying with federal immigration detainer requests, unless the individual has committed serious violent felonies.

The Anaheim Police Department generally does not cooperate or aid immigration authorities, nor do officers question people about their immigration status. However, the department’s written policy does allow them to respond to specific requests from ICE for help in apprehending immigrants with a history of violent felonies.

And though the police department will help with traffic or peacekeeping during ICE operations, the city Anaheim specifically prohibits holding people on traffic violations for longer than two hours.

But Anaheim does not go as far as Los Angeles, home to more than one million immigrants without legal status.

In Los Angeles, the police department does cooperate with immigration authorities when their request involves violent felons. But the city goes further through the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, which offers services to immigrants with or without legal status including assistance with applications for deferred action and information about applying for citizenship.

San Francisco, which declared itself a sanctuary city in 1989, drew national scrutiny for its refusal to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, after Kathryn Steinle was fatally shot by Mexican national Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who had been deported five times before the shooting.

Lopez-Sanchez had a federal detainer on him, but because his felonies and deportations were related to narcotics charges, not violent crimes, he was released from jail, in keeping with the city’s policy.

Mixed Messages From the Dais

Councilman Stephen Faessel said that while he is open to any efforts to make Anaheim “safe for all residents,” he worries about how a sanctuary city policy would affect crime.

“The sanctuary city, taken to its extreme, can also mean protecting…a significant criminal element, and I would not be in a position to say that a criminal has any more rights because he’s in Anaheim than any other city,” Faessel said.

President Barack Obama’s Secure Communities deportation program was aimed at identifying and deporting serious criminals, but ultimately deported a large number of people for traffic violations and drug crimes.

“That’s pushed a lot of advocates to say ‘we just can’t trust the federal government,’” Moreno said. “I can’t say I’m there. If you do have a serious felon in the neighborhood, you want all components of law enforcement to be able to secure people.”

Moreno said such debates, and the details about what it means to be ‘immigrant inclusive,’ should be hashed out through the mayoral task force.

As to why he didn’t pursue a loud proclamation like what was done in Santa Ana, Moreno pointed to the city’s different context: a jail that contracts with federal immigration authorities and ongoing community efforts to end the contract.

“I think they did what they thought was best, based on what the community has seen. Some people are saying I’m playing semantics,” said Moreno. “But we need to move beyond ‘you’re safe with me,’ to actively integrating folks so we are valuing their presence.”

Councilman James Vanderbilt said the city should pass a measure “with teeth” and consider incorporating their action into the city’s legislative platform.

But, he said, the city should wait to see what the Trump administration will do before acting.

“I think most importantly is we have to make sure everybody feels safe – and how you do that depends on what Washington issues and edicts and what they’re trying to  accomplish,” Vanderbilt said.

Councilwoman Denise Barnes was the lone no vote to create the task force, while Murray and Councilwoman Lucille Kring abstained.

Kring, like Murray, was uncomfortable with the vague nature of the proposal.

“We don’t deport people, it’s the federal government that deports people. That sounds like you’re…getting really close to sanctuary city,” said Kring.

Mayor Tom Tait was the most supportive of the measure, and attempted to assuage any unease by noting that any actions recommended by the task force would be subject to final approval by the council.

Meanwhile, Syed said the public has not heard enough from the City Council and police department about how they would approach any federal deportation efforts. He hopes council members will take action before Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

The council should not only express solidarity with immigrant communities, Syed said, but also “subject anti-immigrant activists and groups to have some consequences.”

“Without that, it’s hot air,” said Syed.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.