At his State of the State speech last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown was emphatic that he would defend the state’s laws limiting what local law enforcement can do to accommodate federal immigration enforcement efforts.

And then Brown added a promise.

“Let me be clear, we will defend everyone. Every man, woman and child who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state,” he said, provoking a sustained standing ovation from many in the Capitol.

It’s a hollow promise, however, to the tens of thousands of unauthorized immigrants whom the federal government has removed over the past six years Brown has been governor. Many of those deported did not have criminal convictions and lived in what are being called “sanctuary cities.”

“Sanctuary” has a meaning – a place of refuge and safety – and it does not apply to immigrants without the proper papers in these cities. It’s rather evil, in fact, to call a city a sanctuary and communicate any kind of reassurance to those who are not permitted to be here.

Various lists that purport to track sanctuary cities include the city and the county of San Diego among them.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Yet, in fiscal year 2016 (which runs from October through September), the San Diego Field Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 23,729 people from the United States. And 12,857 of them were not criminals – they had no criminal convictions at all. Often ICE would encounter them while seeking out what it calls “fugitives” – people who have committed felonies in the United States and yet were not put into the removal process.

ICE deported 6,722 people last year from the Los Angeles Field Office, which includes all seven counties surrounding the city. And San Francisco, probably the city and county most recognized as a “sanctuary city,” saw 5,918 people deported, including 479 who were not criminals.

Some sanctuary. If it is true that San Diego’s metropolitan area has 170,000 unauthorized immigrants, as the Pew Research Center recently reported, then a significant portion of them are sent away every year.

“I don’t like the term because it gives people a false sense of security. There is not a lot these cities can do. If ICE has a warrant, they can arrest someone,” said Ginger Jacobs, an immigration attorney who just rotated out as chair of the advisory board of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium.

That warrant issue is key. State law prohibits local law enforcement from holding onto people at jails or booking facilities to allow ICE to come get them unless ICE has a warrant.

Photo by David Maung
Photo by David Maung
Men are led off a bus to a deportation gate at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore brought that up to the secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, when Kelly came for a visit earlier this month. “What could really help us,” Gore told Kelly in a meeting, according to the pool reporter from the Associated Press, “is if we can get some type of warrant or court order to help them.”

Kelly said he didn’t know if he could deliver more of those.

“That would be a big step in the right direction,” Gore said. “And what the state of California is going to come up with down the road, it makes me shudder. I’m really concerned about it because I don’t want to see politics get in the way of good public safety.”

I asked Gore’s office what makes him “shudder” about what state politicians are talking about.

“Any kind of legislation that prevents us from partnering at all with any kind of federal agency – it’s just a reference to rumors floating around,” said Ryan Keim, a spokesman for Gore.

The local immigration world was buzzing about another exchange at that meeting Gore was attending with Kelly. Shelley Zimmerman, San Diego’s police chief, was also there and asked Kelly for his definition of a sanctuary city. It matters now because the president has said he’ll withhold federal grants to “sanctuary jurisdictions” but it’s up to Kelly and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to determine what those are.

Kelly offered no clarity for Zimmerman: “I don’t have a clue.”

Zimmerman and Gore both agree with the principle behind local law enforcement not going out of its way to assist ICE. The theory is simple: Their jobs are to keep San Diego residents safe. If some residents are afraid that their immigration status will be questioned when they call the police, they might not talk when they should.

The reality is, though, ICE is working with San Diego law enforcement. ICE agents are stationed at the San Diego Central Jail, Las Colinas Detention Facility and the Vista Detention Facility. In other words, if you are undocumented and arrested in San Diego, you are going somewhere where an ICE agent can take custody of you.

“When you hear local law enforcement say we don’t want immigrants to be scared, those are empty words when you have ICE literally stationed in the jails themselves,” said Bardis Vakili, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU.

Photo by David Maung
Photo by David Maung
Men deported from the U.S. to Mexico in February eat dinner at the Casa del Migrante shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico.

ICE is quite happy with San Diego. After several exchanges, the Department of Homeland Security authorized this quote from Lauren Mack, an ICE spokeswoman in San Diego: “ICE works closely with our partners in the San Diego law enforcement community. Our longstanding relationships have fostered a strong sense of cooperation and respect at all levels of the government.”

Thus, it would seem San Diego is not in danger of facing the financial wrath of President Donald Trump. The region, though, is also not a sanctuary.

What will be interesting to see is how far this cooperation with ICE will extend. Trump made it clear during his campaign that removing unauthorized immigrants would be a priority, no matter how many millions are here and how long they’ve been here.

The Associated Press sent chills across the country last week, reporting that Trump was considering trying to activate National Guard units to round up unauthorized immigrants. The White House emphatically denied it.

Wall Street Journal reporter Devlin Barrett tweeted that the idea, however, has been around for a while. More important for Trump, though, is another effort: ” the deputizing of many local cops as immigration agents is the biggest goal internally,” Barrett wrote.

This is what local immigrant advocates fear.

“The president can’t deport the numbers of people he says he wants to without more boots on the ground. One traditional way immigrants have been fed into the deportation system is through local police,” Vakili said.

So that’s the question: San Diego does cooperate with ICE. But how far will local leaders go and how hard will Trump push them?

Nobody I talked to knows. As it stands, Maricela Amezola, an immigration attorney in San Diego, said the “sanctuary” label is meaningless for the region. Border Patrol and ICE can work freely here and have enormous assets within 100 miles of the border.

Cities can pass resolutions expressing how welcoming they are to immigrants but nothing has changed. Yet.

“For now, it is not any different than what happened under the Obama administration. Everything they are doing is part of what the law is, and what it allows,” Amezola said.

She did say, though, that she had one client, a mother of three U.S. citizens who was detained in a recent enforcement action. She was not accused of a crime and has not been convicted.

“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Amezola said.

Were ICE to follow previous priority enforcement, Amezola said, she thinks her client would be free.

She is not. There is no sanctuary.

    This article relates to: Border, Immigration, Must Reads, News

    Written by Scott Lewis

    Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently breaks news and goes back and forth with local political figures. Contact Scott at or 619.325.0527, and follow him on Twitter at @vosdscott.

    Jay Berman
    Jay Berman

    No one is against legal immigrants unless they commit crimes, then they get deported.  Jails should hold illegal aliens for 48 hours and notify ICE to pick them up.  Same with illegal immigrant inmates when their sentences are up.  We don't need criminals and we shouldn't protect them. There should be sweeps in gang infested areas, get rid of MS13 and other criminal gangsters.  We should release and deport non-violent illegal alien inmates - to get out early they must sign a document that if they are caught in this country again, they get their original sentence back with 10 years added and no early release.  

    San Diego has a wall, for the most part, it works.  The import border tax isn't even proposed yet but it should only apply to businesses that move production from here to Mexico in the future, not existing factories already operating in Mexico.  

    NAFTA needs to change, it is lopsided in Mexicos favor.  We need to make it easier and cheaper to manufacture here.  

    I would like to see an agriculture visa, where workers can apply at a licensed agency in Mexico, a background check will be done in Mexico and the US, a passport will be required.  Farmers can order workers through these agencies, the worker must pass the background check and this visa is biometric, eye scan and fingerprint,  Visa   is good for 90 days.  Farmer must be responsible for housing and feeding workers on their property.  Farmer will be responsible for emergency medical treatment.  A minimum wage will be set, the worker doesn't pay taxes only 5% and the farmer pays 5%, this is used to administer the program.  If the worker disappears they are eligible for immediate termination and deportation.  If they do this for 10 years, there may be a way to achieve permanent residency.  

    I would like to see a tourist visa, there is no reason people in Mexico shouldn't be able to visit relatives here.  The visa will be biometric, good for 7 days.  Must have a passport.  This would be a web-based visa just like we have to get an FM border card to cross by foot into Mexico.  A background check will be done, overstays will terminate the program for this person. 

    There are some reasonable things we can do like what I have stated above.  Employers must use e-verify and the fines for hiring illegal aliens would be brutal. 

    Paul Grimes
    Paul Grimes

    Keeping San Diego safe should include working with ICE and turning over illegals to ICE that have committed crimes beyond their illegal entry into the US.  All San Diegans should support such steps to remove criminals from our streets regardless of immigration status.   Jerry Brown's statement that he will protect anyone who comes to CA for a better life shouldn't include those who fell a better life is one of crime.

    Steven Grimes
    Steven Grimes

    What a load of hogwash. San Diego is not a sanctuary city?  California is not a sanctuary state?  Seriously?  San Diego County maintains the third largest population of unauthorized immigrants in California and the seventh largest in the United States, according to a new report by the Migration Policy Institute.   According to that study, they have approximately 250,000 illegal immigrants - which equates to about  a 10% deportation rate using your  deportation statistics.  On the flip side of that coin, an illegal immigrant has a 90% chance of not being deported when living in San Diego.  Both Los Angeles and San Francisco openly declare to be sanctuary cities, as you note in your own article, and have almost a zero percent deportation rate.  Given that California has the largest percentage of illegal immigrants in the nation and given the fact that San Francisco and Los Angeles are open sanctuary cities, it is rather intellectually dishonest to say that California is not a sanctuary state.  Finally, just because the rate of deportation in San Diego is higher than the two cities with abysmal deportation rates, it is also intellectually dishonest to use that as the basis for declaring that San Diego is not a sanctuary city.   Your article is not even close to reality.

    Ron Wilson
    Ron Wilson

    Good article.  I find it odd that the number of deportees are divided into two groups.

    " X# deported but X did not have a criminal record.....    I guess they do now!  I thought being here illegally was illegal.  There's always this kind of spin.  I assume the figures came from our diligent government.  

    Keep writing


    Mary Carol Sears
    Mary Carol Sears

    @Ron Wilson Illegal border crossing is a civil offense,  not a criminal offense.  (Just as you don't become a "criminal" for a traffic violation.)  Illegal immigrants, therefore, may or may not be criminals. It depends on whether they have committed some criminal offense in addition to the civil offense of illegal entry.

    Otto Matic
    Otto Matic

    @Mary Carol Sears @Ron Wilson 


    Under Federal Criminal law, it is an offense for an alien (i.e., a non-citizen) to:

    • Enter or attempt to enter the United States at any time or place other than designated by immigration officers;
    • Elude examination or inspection by immigration officers; or
    • Attempt to enter or obtain entry to the United States by willfully concealing, falsifying, or misrepresenting material facts.

    The punishment under this federal law faces up to 6 months of incarceration....

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    Okay, and then there is this.

    "3. Is San Francisco the only Sanctuary City in the country?

    No. In fact, San Francisco is just one of hundreds of cities across the U.S. with sanctuary policies or related law enforcement orders. California and certain other states also have related laws or policies."

    In other words, the government of SF is openly stating that it IS a sanctuary city.  What a preposterous article that you've written Scott.

    Scott Lewis
    Scott Lewis moderator administratormember

    @shawn fox That was my point: they can say whatever they want but they're not sanctuaries and deportations happen, it's misleading and dangerous for them to provide assurances they can't back up. The federal government, with a warrant, can get anyone. And even without one, plenty of people are removed from the country. (By the way, I don't see anything different in San Francisco's actual policies from San Diego's other than the word, sanctuary). Thanks for reading and offering such a thoughtful rebuttal. 

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @Scott Lewis @shawn fox That response is nonsensical Scott.  Of course they can't stop ALL deportations.  The federal government will in some cases deport people whether the locals like it or not.  Being a sanctuary city simply means doing everything that they can do to prevent it, and refusing to cooperate with ramped up efforts by the Feds.  The term sanctuary absolutely applies to that situation.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    Moreover Scott your numbers imply a very tiny percentage of illegal immigrants being deported which certainly does imply that this is a state with very little interest in deporting illegal immigrants.  We're now allowing "illegal" immigrants to simply walk into the DMV for state IDs, and you say we aren't a sanctuary state.  Bizarre!  Why bother deporting anyone? 

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    By your own data, San Diego deported far more illegal immigrants then either San Francisco or LA.  Does that not imply that people are "safer" from deportation in those cities as compared to San Diego?

    Then there is this,

    San Francisco has no right to federal tax dollars as far as I know.  The city policy that requires ICE to have a warrant assumes that ICE knows that they have someone in custody.  Are the ICE agents supposed to be mind readers?  How would they know to get a warrant for someone that the city or county has arrested if neither the city or the county notifies ICE?  That was the issue with the man who was released from custody that subsequently murdered a woman.  Looking at the stats in question, I would certainly consider both LA and San Francisco sanctuary cities.  This entire article is highly suspicious and it clearly isn't news.  It's an editorial.  Never mind that cities and universities all over have been openly declaring their refusal to cooperate with ICE in the future even when ICE does have a warrant.  Why is it "moral" to deport new illegal immigrants while allowing the existing illegal immigrants to stay, get drivers licenses, use public schools, and so forth.  Immigration policy in this country is simply wacky and nonsensical.  Sooner or later if the people that are here illegally aren't going to be legalized then what do we do?  Just ignore the fact that they are illegal and allow them to stay in the country with this gray area status?  Trump shouldn't let bully's cause him to back down.  Either say that you are doing to deport as many illegal immigrants as possible, or say that you are going to support a path to citizenship.  The way I see it, the only two reasonable answers are one of those two possibilities.  

    Scott Lewis
    Scott Lewis moderator administratormember

    @shawn fox It has something to do with our location on the border. Seems self explanatory but perhaps you needed it spelled out. I agree that leaving them without a path to citizenship is wrong. My article is what it is and I think it provides valuable data, reporting and perspective. 

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @Scott Lewis @shawn fox You aren't agreeing with me at all.  A path to citizenship only makes sense if we are refusing to deport illegal immigrants.  In my mind there should be no sanctuary whatsoever.  i'm just pointing out that since do nothing politicians aren't going to do it then we might as well not beat around the bush.  Deportation levels may or may not have something to do with proximity to the border.  You have not provided any facts to back that up, and therefore it shouldn't be obvious to anyone Scott.  It could very well be the case that San Diego law enforcement is actually trying a little harder to do their job.

    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    There are also no "undocumented immigrants" , they are illegal aliens and have already committed their first crime by coming across the border illegally. 

    Mary Carol Sears
    Mary Carol Sears

    @craig Nelson Correction of fact:  Illegal border crossing is a civil offense, not a crime.  See explanation above in my reply to Ron Wilson.

    George Takada
    George Takada

    @Mary Carol Sears @craig Nelson Mary:  As was stated above you are 50% wrong.  Civil penalties can be assessed in addition to the Criminal penalties for the primary improper entry offense as stated here: 

    Criminal Penalties

    For the first improper entry offense, the person can be fined (as a criminal penalty), or imprisoned for up to six months, or both.  For a subsequent offense, the person can be fined or imprisoned for up to two years, or both. (See 8 U.S.C. Section 1325, I.N.A. Section 275.)

    So please become more educated before you get people's hopes up falsely.

    This was also pointed out to you above by Otto Matic.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    I agree that sanctuary is an improper term, but the stance taken by some local and state law enforcement agencies is not meaningless. Local law enforcement officers who develop reasonable suspicion that someone is in the country illegally have ways to detain them and contact ICE, so that they can be processed for deportation. There was a time this was the norm. Various changes in directives to law enforcement officers in some agencies (LA is an example) mean that even if it is abundantly obvious that someone is in the country illegally, ICE shall not be summoned. Sanctuary? Not in the sense that local law enforcement is actively protecting those sought by ICE from ICE, but in the sense that someone who reports a crime against them to local law enforcement, for example, is not vulnerable to being reported or turned over to ICE. This is the Los Angeles Police Chief's point. He wants those in the country illegally to feel no fear from his officers that a contact for service will result in deportation. 

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Very informative piece Scott.