Sonoma County supervisors and Santa Rosa City Council members are preparing to make their strongest statements yet Tuesday in support of undocumented residents in an effort to calm fears stoked by President Donald Trump’s controversial executive orders on immigration.
They appear poised to do so, however, without using the politically charged term “sanctuary,” a designation without a clear definition that Trump has said could lead to the loss of federal funding for communities that “willfully refuse” to cooperate with immigration agents.
“Once we use the word ‘sanctuary,’ it means a lot of things to a lot of people, and then it becomes an issue of the current administration’s threat to remove our federal funding,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.
Santa Rosa is also preparing to discuss a resolution Tuesday that reads a lot like a sanctuary resolution without ever using the word, calling it instead a resolution that “Safeguard the Civil Rights, Safety and Dignity of All Santa Rosa Residents.”
Mayor Chris Coursey said the draft is merely a starting point for a discussion, and he’s more interested in the policies the city enacts and the impact they have on residents than labels. He asked staff also to look into whether the city could use other terms like “welcoming city” or “noncooperative city.”
“I’m not sure how important the word ‘sanctuary’ is,” Coursey said. “Saying you are a sanctuary is something different than having policies that actually make you a sanctuary city.”
What is certain is that the elected leaders of the two largest local government agencies on the North Coast are choosing their words carefully — and to date appear hesitant to join the growing ranks of cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York, whose leaders are embracing the sanctuary term as an act of open defiance to Trump’s immigration crackdown.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is considering a resolution that cites “a sense of uncertainty and fear” in Sonoma County due in part to Trump’s recent executive orders and declares the county “respects, upholds and values” equality in protection and treatment for all residents regardless of their immigration status.
The resolution further seeks to assure “vulnerable communities” that they are supported by county officials who will not stand for “acts of hate, discrimination, bullying or harassment.”
If passed, the resolution would relay a commitment from supervisors to provide all county residents, no matter their immigration status, with the same “essential services.” And it would state the county’s determination to act in ways that “ensure the family unity, community security, dignity and due process” of all residents.
At the same time, the board is considering an order directing county staff to evaluate a range of immigration-related issues and actions. They include a review of Senate Bill 54, state legislation that restricts how law enforcement officers participate in deportations. Staff would also evaluate a potential summit on immigration issues, assess the county’s ability to improve immigrants’ legal defenses and identify how the county can better spread information about the rights of undocumented immigrants and the services available to them.
Additionally, the order would have staff suggest other actions or programs that could keep immigrant communities safe.
But Zane, the board’s chair, said using the word “sanctuary” could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the county, adding that the resolution says “what needs to be said” without using the term.
“Those dollars are really supporting the most vulnerable people in our community,” she said. “Those are food stamps, those are foster care services, behavioral health services, funding for needy families — all kinds of things are in there. That’s our safety net.”
Given Trump’s strong opposition to sanctuary jurisdictions, an official embrace of the term could make Sonoma County a target, in Zane’s view, though she acknowledged the resolution may do that anyway.
“I think we have provided an incredibly strong resolution that outlines our values, along with direction to staff to provide meaningful services, without using the S-word,” Zane said. “And, honestly, given the separation between the board and the sheriff, I’m not so sure that word would have much meaning.”
Sheriff’s Office policy
As an independently elected official, Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas has complete control over policy in his department. Supervisors allocate the Sheriff’s Office budget but can’t control how Freitas runs the department.
Attempting to use the board’s budgetary authority to shape Sheriff’s Office policy is not something a functional government should do, said Supervisor James Gore. He opposed the idea of effectively decreasing “the amount of deputies on the street” over a policy disagreement.
Gore also felt the need to demonstrate commitment to Sonoma County immigrants, but like Zane worried about the impact to important county services if federal funds are taken away.
“I’ll be damned if I throw people under the bus while trying to save others from in front of it,” Gore said.
The sheriff’s policy states the department will enforce laws equally without respect to immigration status, which should have no bearing on how department personnel do their jobs. Per state law, the Sonoma County Jail does not honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers unless federal officials show proof of probable cause, typically in the form of an arrest warrant.
“The sheriff has always said that he will follow the law, that we’re not going to go independent of the law,” said Sgt. Spencer Crum. “If any law changes, then we will follow whatever the current law is.”
Over the last month, ICE requested notification of the release of 16 inmates from the county Jail, according to Crum. Four of those inmates were released and none of them was deported, Crum said.
“There’s zero people in the last month that have been deported out of our jail,” Crum said. “This doesn’t appear to be a big issue in Sonoma County.”
Santa Rosa resolution
But it’s big issue to residents who turned out in near record numbers to the Santa Rosa City Council meeting last week to urge action, and to the immigrant rights advocates who have been pushing local officials to take as strong a stance as possible against cooperating with ICE.
Susan Lamont, a longtime coordinator at the Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County, said she’s read the Santa Rosa resolution and said “it’s not enough.”
She and others have been working to get all the cities in the county to sign a broader pledge resisting a number of federal threats to civil rights, and she thinks the city’s pledge is too focused on immigration.
“It’s not a change in policy, as far as I can tell,” she said.
The draft resolution, which council members can amend during the meeting, is more detailed than the county’s. It affirms the city’s values of diversity and safety for “vulnerable communities” stressing it “is a safe place for immigrants from all countries, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.”
It makes clear the city “wishes to foster trust and cooperation” between city police and immigrant communities, and “wishes to encourage immigrants to report crime and speak to the police without fear of being arrested or reported to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.”
It further declares its police department “already declines to enforce federal civil immigration laws, does not conduct immigration raids and does not question, detain or arrest individuals on the basis that they might be in this country illegally in violation of federal civil immigration law.”
It calls on residents and city employees “to speak out against acts of bullying, discrimination and hate. It “opposes deportations which split up families” and urges the federal government to promptly legislate a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.” It also calls on federal officials to “refrain from deportations of immigrants who have not been convicted of felonies endangering the community.”
Perhaps most importantly, the resolution says city employees — including police — “shall not enforce federal civil immigration laws and shall not use city monies, resources or personnel to investigate, question, detect or apprehend persons on the basis of a possible violation of immigration law, unless required by state or federal law.”
Whether and how these policies differ from anything the city does now is not clear.
City Manager Sean McGlynn last week declared to rousing applause from an overflow crowd that city police “do not engage in law enforcement action based on a person’s immigration status,” and that Trump’s executive orders would not “change how our police officers protect and serve all of our residents.”
But key to Trump’s effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration policies is the broadening of reasons someone would be eligible for deportation. Instead of just those convicted of crimes, also on ICE’s radar would be those charged with a crime, those who “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” and those who have “abused any program” to receive public benefits.
While broadening the range of reasons for which a person could be deported might not affect how the city polices its residents, it could affect how they are handled at the jail. The draft recommendation calls on the county to adopt the same policies outlined by the city.
Councilwoman Julie Combs expressed concern about this gap between the city’s policing policies and the county’s detention policies at last week’s meeting.
“If the county does not become a sanctuary county, what are our choices when someone is arrested?” she said. “Because if we take someone to the county and they’re not a sanctuary, what happens to our person is also a concern.”
Immigration attorney Richard Coshnear, who along with former city attorney Brien Farrell helped draft the resolution, said his hope is the city council adds back language that had been restricting city police officers from contacting ICE in all cases.
Coshnear said a close reading of the city’s policy on immigration shows that it gives officers the ability to report the status of witnesses or crime victims to immigration agents when “circumstances indicate such reporting is reasonably necessary.”
“If they just have a bright line policy saying ‘That’s not our business,’ then the community can feel more at easy about calling them,” Coshnear said.
Councilman John Sawyer said while Trump’s pronouncements fill him with anxiety, he tries to remind himself it’s nothing compared to what undocumented members of the community must feel.
“I don’t know what it’s like to live in this kind of fear,” Sawyer said. “Whatever we can do as a city to lessen that than fear where we can, I think we need to do it.”
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-526-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @thejdmorris. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.