by Leslie Layton
Supervisor Larry Wahl retreated Tuesday from an effort to officially declare that Butte County is not a so-called “sanctuary jurisdiction” – a designation adopted by some counties in response to federal immigration policies.
Wahl declined to move for passage of a draft resolution that he had requested, after the board heard a detailed 60-minute presentation by Sheriff Kory Honea and testimony from a dozen members of the public. Most speakers viewed the resolution as unnecessary and warned that it would be perceived as a hostile gesture.
The resolution stated, in part, that Butte “has no policies, practices, or intentions of hindering enforcement of federal immigration laws.”
Honea said the draft resolution was an accurate reflection of policy, but that it might be perceived as unfriendly by the immigrant community. The resolution could discourage victims and witnesses who are undocumented from cooperating with local law enforcement officers, he said, a view that was also articulated by Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey in a letter that Honea read to the board.
“We are dedicated to protecting everyone, regardless of their immigration status,” Honea noted.
The board voted 5-0, however, to approve a letter stating the county’s opposition to SB54, the California Values Act, which is often referred to as “sanctuary” legislation that would affect the entire state. That action was enthusiastically endorsed by Honea and Ramsey, who could not attend the meeting.
But before that vote was taken, there was a lengthy discussion about the confusing concept of “sanctuary,” whether this is a sanctuary county by default and Wahl’s proposed resolution. Several citizens noted that the lack of a comprehensive immigration policy at the federal level has created ongoing challenges, confusion and in general, said one speaker, a “big mess.”
Chico’s Chris Nelson, a nurse practitioner who said she has seen the injuries suffered by many working immigrants, took Wahl to task for proposing the non-sanctuary resolution.
“What you’re doing by going to the lowest common denominator is doubling down on hate and xenophobia,” Nelson said in comments directed at Wahl. “I’m appalled you would bring this up, Mr. Wahl.”
In comments to ChicoSol on Wednesday, Wahl said he requested the resolution to dispel the notion that Butte is already a sanctuary county under existing state law, something a number of people believe. He noted that the possible loss of federal funds to sanctuary jurisdictions is “a concern.”
County officials at the March 14 meeting insisted time and again that Butte County has done nothing to suggest it’s a sanctuary jurisdiction. “We have no local protections exceeding those provided by state law,” Honea said.
In fact, sanctuary designations adopted by counties and cities across the nation often mean different things, according to the Immigrant Law Resource Center. In some cases they are symbolic statements intended to welcome diversity, and in other cases they are policies that discourage local police from using their resources on immigration enforcement. The strongest policy might bar police from providing information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In any case, with the evolution of federal and state law, Butte can no longer hold jail inmates for ICE beyond their county-mandated release dates, Honea said, unless it receives a warrant signed by a judge. It advises ICE of release dates when authorities indicate interest in an inmate.
“It’s not something that happens on a tremendously regular basis,” Honea said, noting that there are two individuals in custody now at Butte County Jail who have attracted the attention of ICE. County officials are providing release information for those inmates, both of whom are suspected of or already convicted of violent crimes.
Honea said that even this level of collaboration would become impossible if SB54 passes. “It would severely limit the ability of California law enforcement agencies to cooperate or interact with ICE,” Honea said, noting that the California State Sheriff’s Association opposes the bill. “It would increase the risk to public safety.”
SB54 would bar local law enforcement agencies from using their resources for immigration enforcement, but Honea said the bill’s text goes much further.
Honea said he’s also concerned that ICE could come into the community without making any attempt to collaborate with his department, something that he believes is more apt to happen under SB54 if federal authorities can’t work with local officials and access the jail.
“Frankly, as sheriff, I’m always a little concerned when I have federal law enforcement officials running around my communities and knocking on people’s doors and making arrests,” Honea said. “I would like to be able to coordinate that.”
Honea — and Ramsey in his letter — also made reference to the problem of cartel-run marijuana grows in the Butte County foothills and the need to collaborate with ICE in the removal of undocumented immigrants working at those sites.
Most of the citizens who attended the meeting appeared to have been swayed by Honea’s arguments against SB54, but remained opposed to the non-sanctuary resolution.
“Making us a non-sanctuary county sends a very scary message to a lot of the people who are voters and non-voters, who live here, and especially if they’re victims of a crime,” said a speaker, Dennis Deromedi.
Loretta Torres, who ran unsuccessfully for Chico City Council in the 2016 election, indicated that some of the college students who had asked the city of Chico to adopt a sanctuary designation were needlessly afraid. “To the children of immigrants,” she said, “I say, ‘don’t rape, don’t kill, don’t steal, and you’ll be safe in our county.’”
Media reports from around the country suggest that has not always been the case, that ICE has recently picked up undocumented immigrants who have no criminal record.
Nelson reminded the audience that Trump is revamping federal immigration policy. “Trump’s agenda is a massive deportation agenda,” she said. “We not at the beck and call of a federal government that has shown itself to be cruel and uncaring.”
Concow’s Dan Levine was one of the last speakers to oppose the non-sanctuary resolution. Levine said the sanctuary issue has been reduced to a partisan red-and-blue debate and called the United States a “sanctuary country.” In closing, he said, “God bless all government and all immigrant families and hopefully this will work out for everyone.”
After the public hearing, Wahl warned that if SB54 passes it will “create a nightmare.”
“I want to make it very clear that we are not a sanctuary city by probably any definition,” Wahl said. He noted that citizens’ groups may ask the board to adopt a county sanctuary designation in the future, and “we have to be prepared for that.”
“At some point in the future we may have to make a declaration or resolution that we are not a sanctuary county,” Wahl said, “but for now I won’t make that motion.”
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.