Immigration defense fund a tough sell in ‘Indivisible’ Santa Rosa

Seven months after declaring itself an “Indivisible City” in support of undocumented immigrants, Santa Rosa remains divided over whether to spend taxpayer money to help those facing deportation.

The City Council on Tuesday rebuffed a request to contribute $100,000 each of the next three years to the Sonoma County Secure Families Fund, established recently by the Community Foundation of Sonoma County to expand legal services for immigrants.

The fund grew out of an effort earlier this year by the Board of Supervisors to explore ways to improve government services for immigrants. It concluded the best way to protect undocumented residents was to get cities, businesses and nonprofits to collaborate and raise $2 million.

While council members agreed there was a real need for legal protections, most found a litany of reasons not to support Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein’s request at this time, even after it was whittled down to $50,000 for the first year only.

Councilman Ernesto Olivares, the only Latino ever elected to the City Council who came to the United States from Mexico as a toddler, typified the council’s struggle with the issue.

The retired police lieutenant said the request presented him with a “very difficult decision.” The city’s unanimous “Indivisible City” declaration in February amounted to a commitment to protect its most vulnerable residents, but he wasn’t sure this was the way to do it, he said.

“There is a need for action, but I’m uncomfortable saying ‘Yeah. Write a check for $50,000,’” Olivares said.

He cited the tight city budget, a lack of data and what he said was no clear plan for how to carry out the effort. Perhaps there was another way the city could help, he said, such as by providing free meeting space or other in-kind contributions to the effort.

Goldstein explained his hope was to get enough money pledged to recruit a service provider to expand legal services for immigrants that could be in place by the beginning of the year. The county pledged $100,000 per year for three years.

The most supportive council member was Vice Mayor Jack Tibbetts, who read a section from the city’s February declaration urging the county and other cities to embrace measures protective of undocumented residents and claiming to “welcome opportunities to partner” with groups that “support and defend these populations.”

“This is exactly what we are talking about today,” Tibbetts said.

Mayor Chris Coursey agreed the “Indivisible City” declaration, which he was instrumental in crafting, weighed heavily on his mind.

“We can’t just say that and then not back that up with some action,” he said.

Though he said he was hesitant to commit funds for future years, Coursey said he could support $50,000 this year because he sees how deportation fears are affecting residents.

“What we do know is that life in America has changed for a lot of people that we know and love in this community, and I am willing to put some money forward to help them out,” Coursey said.

But Councilman John Sawyer said he worried about the city overcommitting limited funds. Tom Schwedhelm said it didn’t seem right to award the request outside the city’s regular budget cycle. And Julie Combs, while expressing possible support for the $50,000, said she wasn’t sure legal services was the greatest need.

Ultimately, Councilman Chris Rogers said he was willing to spend $50,000, but wanted more information about the program before doing so. The Council instructed City Manager Sean McGlynn to bring the item back to them for consideration. But McGlynn, citing more pressing deadlines imposed on the city regarding an impending switch to district elections, said revisiting the issue before December was “asking for the impossible.”

Goldstein said smaller cities often look to Santa Rosa for direction, and now he worried about the fate of the effort.

“Without the city’s leadership, it’s going to be harder,” he said after the meeting.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or

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