By Jesús Guzmán


“Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land,” were the words issued in a joint statement by California Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. They went on to say that “we have never been more proud to be Californians” and that “by a margin in the millions, Californians overwhelmingly rejected politics fueled by resentment, bigotry, and misogyny.” Not long after the election, legislative and community leaders began working on proposals to resist the Trump agenda. One of the first proposals was Senate Bill 54 (SB 54), the California Values Act (De Leon and Rendon, 2016).

The bill, in effect, would prevent the use of state and local public resources to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in deporting Californians. The proposed law would prohibit state and local law enforcement from carrying out activities pertaining to ICE unless strictly provided with a judicial warrant. “The right to due process,” states San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, “is the bedrock of this country’s criminal justice system”.

The problem SB 54 aims to address is simple: there exists a conflict between California’s insistence in protecting its undocumented residents from the federal government’s immigration enforcement policies. California’s response through SB 54 seeks to accomplish a clear objective: limiting the activity of ICE in California by prohibiting state and local public resources, including local law enforcement, from assisting ICE in their endeavors.

However, the California State Sheriffs’ Association and the California Peace Officers’ Association believe the measure would hinder the ability of local law enforcement to promote public safety. They argue, as Republican State Senator Joel Anderson has, that law enforcement would be unable to distinguish between “Dreamers” (young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children without legal status) and more hard-nosed criminals. (Murphy, 2017). Presumably, the argument is that dreamers are “good immigrants” who should be spared from immigration enforcement, while in turn there are “bad immigrants” who should be deported. Furthermore, Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas made a public statement in February that his department’s goal is to keep families from being victimized regardless of immigration status and that to do so they must use every available tool to remove the “bad immigrants” out of our communities, which includes notifying ICE (Freitas, 2017).

SB 54, in this case, takes two very different approaches to public safety. Proponents of SB 54 view ICE as the primary threat to public safety, while opponents of SB 54 view some individuals who would be released under the new law as the real threats to public safety. The question worth asking is, does collaborating with ICE maintain or improve public safety? And if so, what is the evidence?

Prima facie, the argument may appear to be compelling. There are people who pose a “threat” to a community and law enforcement’s responsibility is to ensure all residents are safe from such individuals. Law enforcement argues that in order to do so they must use all available tools to maintain public safety. In this, we must ask whether law enforcement, which is not trained to deal with immigration law, should consider an option which, in notable situations, resulted in having disastrous consequences.

Take, for example, the case of Mark Lyttle. In 2010, while being held in a North Carolina jail Mr. Lyttle was referred to ICE. The problem? Mr. Lyttle is a U.S. citizen with mental disabilities. Without proper due process, and despite never having lived or even visited Mexico, he was deported by ICE. For four months, Mr. Lyttle somehow managed to survive on the streets of Mexico, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. He finally found his way to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City and was transported home. A lawsuit was filed by the ACLU soon after (American Civil Liberties Union, 2010). The case raised serious questions about the manner in which law enforcement manages detainees with mental disabilities and provides them assistance; the failure of the Department of Homeland Security to actually verify U.S. citizenship; and how poor the safeguards actually are, especially when there is a direct pipeline between local law enforcement, DHS, and deportation.

But Mr. Lyttle’s case isn’t an anomaly. In fact, DHS has a systematic problem when it comes to detaining and deporting U.S. citizens. In 2010 alone, the same year Mr. Lyttle was deported, over 4,000 U.S. citizens were detained or deported as aliens. And since 2003, over 20,000 U.S. citizens have been deported (Stevens, 2011).  In 2015, the ACLU came to terms with DHS to allow hundreds of mentally ill deportees to return to the U.S. after finding that they were forced to represent themselves in U.S. immigration court (Sanchez, 2015). When local law enforcement notifies ICE about a detainee, the question must be asked as to whether their legal status has been properly verified. Is local law enforcement in the best position to know? If even DHS has serious problems in properly identifying U.S. citizens, do police departments really stand a better chance of doing so? And if not, are these the kind of risks and trade-offs communities to residents when arguing in favor of ICE/local police collaborations? Presumably, increased collaboration with ICE increases the probability not only of an immigrant being deported, but quite possibly U.S. citizens as well.  

But there are additional trade-offs made that should be considered. The assertion of deporting dangerous criminals in order to keep both legal and non-legal residents safe fails to account for the obvious danger introduced by doing so. In notifying ICE, law enforcement trusts, to a large degree, that ICE will deport the identified individual, and only that individual. However, experience has shown different results. Take the latest example that occurred in Santa Cruz this year.  In February, the Santa Cruz Police Department agreed to collaborate with ICE in an operation to arrest and deport gang members. After the operation was complete, reports soon surfaced that ICE had also made subsequent arrests of non-targeted individuals in the community. Police Chief Kevin Vogel held a public press conference stating that he had been “misled” with “misinformation” by DHS and that he could no longer work with the agency because “we can’t cooperate with a law enforcement agency we cannot trust” (Todd, 2017).  

And what about the “good” immigrants such as the “Dreamers” that California State Senator Anderson purported to want to protect by distinguishing from criminals? Well, ICE doesn’t seem to distinguish between them. This year, 22-year old Daniela Vargas, a recipient of DACA, was detained by ICE. She is not the only case currently pending for DACA-recipients. Enforcement may be a question about resource allocation, but currently ICE seems to have no problem swooping up individuals indiscriminately, whether legal or not, that it comes across (Lind, 2017).

In all of this, the central question still remains: does collaborating with ICE promote public safety? This would include notifying or supporting ICE in any capacity that would lead to the deportation of an individual. Groups opposed to SB 54 state that law enforcement should use every tool available, including notifying ICE, in order to remove an individual from a community.  Research recently published by Alberto Ciancio at the University of Pennsylvania provides insight into this question. The research looks at Democratic and Republican counties that respectively increased or decreased their collaboration with ICE and immigration enforcement policies. The results showed that Democratic-leaning counties with higher non-citizen population shares saw greater increases in clearance rates, a measure of police efficiency, and no increases in crime rates (Ciancio, 2017). The evidence suggests that reducing ICE collaboration increases police efficiency. As the author states, “If reducing crime is the primary objective, the option of deporting more immigrants is sub-optimal.”  The paper also argues that clearance rates improve because non-legal residents may feel more comfortable speaking with police if they’re confident police is not cooperating with ICE. This new evidence provides a strong argument that reducing immigration enforcement does not compromise public safety.

The cost of deportation also includes trust. In an attempt by law enforcement to improve public safety through deportation, despite the evidence, trust is eroded in the communities they police. This can prove to be hugely detrimental to the department’s mission to maintain public safety. The question then should be whether this trade-off is the one communities are willing to make. When the evidence informs us that collaborating with ICE has led to the detention and deportation of thousands of U.S. citizens, including people with mental disabilities, is this a price of cooperation communities are willing to pay? When the evidence also informs us that ICE has misled and misinformed local law enforcement, only to raid communities that should not have been targeted, is this a price of cooperation communities are willing to pay? When the evidence informs us that public safety suffers when local law enforcement chooses to collaborate with ICE, is this a price of cooperation communities are willing to pay?

Last week, the Senate voted to pass SB 54. The bill now moves to the Assembly. As California pushes forward legislation to make itself a sanctuary for immigrants (though not perfect, it improves on the status quo), it does so in stark opposition to the federal government and the Trump administration.  In SB 54, California is not falling for a pseudo-zero sum game, but instead choosing both to prioritize public safety and its immigrant residents. As the closing sentence in the Joint Statement written by Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon reads, “California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.”


Jesús Guzmán is a Master in Public Policy Candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and has spent much of his career organizing for immigrant and labor rights with day laborers and domestic workers in California.