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The sanctuary movement began as a response to the Reagan administration when Central America was combustible, erratic, murderous and shameful. The countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua were wretched killing fields that glorified torture and genocide. What appealed to Reagan was not the sadism of Central American military leaders who slaughtered their own but the vow to fight socialistic and communistic policies, something the Reagan administration supported with money, weapons, and training. In a paroxysm of fear, Central Americans fled to the border.

The faith community took it upon themselves to care for the Central American broken, burdened, hungry and homeless, not as symbolism, but as an act of conscience. It was a hagiographic text played out in real life.

The underground network that smuggled illegal immigrants into parishes rationalized it as the moral thing to do. The shepherds were resolute, the needy were anxious, and both operated covertly and in the shadows. The defiance of pastors like John Fife, one of the founders of the underground sanctuary movement, was transactional and anchored in moral and pastoral justice. Over 500 churches were part of the network to bring refugees to safe ground by breaking the law.

When the government caught on, Fife was indicted, along with 10 other church workers, on 71 counts ranging from conspiracy to harboring illegals. He was convicted and sentenced to probation but it was hardly a deterrent that scared the religious community, nor ruined the movement. Hundreds took Fife’s place, inspired to continue the humanitarian tradition of ethical compassion.

The sanctuary movement has evolved over the years from a smuggling operation to a defiance of ICE movement, to the soul of man doing what he just has to do to be kind in the world.

To overwhelm the whims of religious patriots, the federal government depended on local law enforcement. In a perfect world, it went something like this. Sheriffs were to detain immigrants when they were cited for minor offenses like loitering or traffic violations. After incarceration, they were to call ICE; the immigrants didn’t belong. But many small town sheriffs didn’t want to be in the middle of calamity. It was awkward, and at the very least, made them responsible for collateral damage.


Sanctuary cities differ from state to state and they exist all over the country but it is California’s sanctuary cities that is the center of Trump’s contempt. California’s capacity to endure Trumpian whims is a particular talent of a state that can be crafty when they have an enemy they hate. Last February, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf alerted residents about upcoming immigration raids. “I was sharing information in a way that was legal and was not obstructing justice, and it was an opportunity to ensure that people were aware of their rights.”

California Senate Bill 54 made California a sanctuary state by legalizing non-cooperation with ICE. Local law enforcement agencies cannot transfer illegal immigrants to federal custody if they have not been convicted in the last 15 years of a serious crime, or if they are not a sex offender. Law enforcement agencies cannot ask about immigration status so no stopping a car and then grilling everyone in the backseat. They also cannot share information with federal immigration agencies that is not also available to the public. Money cannot be used for immigration purposes such as “investigating, interrogating, detaining, detecting, or arresting persons for immigration reasons.” Federal agencies cannot use space in local facilities. Illegal immigrants are protected and welcomed in the state.

The point of Senate Bill 54 was as subtle as a cudgel. Immigration agents have federal responsibilities that are narrowly defined and local sheriffs have municipal responsibilities they cannot abandon. Their lanes shouldn’t intersect in spite of Donald Trump’s xenophobic impulses.

Despite the irrationality of his immigration dumping policy, and its vast pettiness, let’s say Donald Trump pulls it off and drags asylum seekers into California. What about the schematics? Who is going to pay for it? It’s expensive to fly immigrants fifty miles, much less 500 miles, and ICE doesn’t have resources they can lean on to bail them out of a Trump revenge scheme. That is the vast richness of this superficial plan. Trump’s objective to hurt his enemy may lead to a more acidic reality. He may be forced to drink the poison he is hoping the state of California will swallow in gulps. His threat has a lot of holes.

One of the key hallmarks of a sanctuary city is they are oxygenated by a network of immigration lawyers, advocates and social service professionals who consider it a mandate to help immigrants stay in the country. Central Americans marching to the border are incentivized by what is already publicly known about California’s liberality.

It bears noting that Trump, to quote Will Shakespeare, is hoisted by his own petard. By crowing about sending illegals to California, he is also boasting about adding illegal immigrants to the rolls. It’s enough to motivate even more illegals to make the long Central American trip to the border while infuriating the hardliners who want all illegals out of country.


California is used to illegal immigration fights. In 1994, Proposition 187 or Save Our State, as it was referred to, appeared on the California ballot. The “Our” was a dog whistle for “our white state”. The proposition denied illegal immigrants health care, public education and social service benefits, and forced state employees to report illegals for deportation. One state senator talked about identity cards for Latinos. The Republican governor Pete Wilson enthusiastically embraced the proposition and Republicans put a lot of money behind it. A lot of the Republican grandstanding was just public relations victimhood. They knew illegals were not eligible for welfare and that most of the proposition would be struck down by the courts so it was all about optics they hoped would translate into votes, as they continually whined about illegals. It was political theater.

Conservative William F. Buckley had the intellect to knew the outcome and he spelled it out, as if he was sermonizing to a bunch of kindergarteners.

“To pass such a measure as 187 situates the GOP with a strain of xenophobia which will very quickly evolve into anti-GOP resentments by the majority of Californians. That could lead to electoral catastrophe.”

58% of Californians voted in favor of Proposition 187 and instantly it was challenged by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), the league of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the ACLU. Federal district judge Matthew Byrne issued a temporary injunction after only three days, halting enforcement. That was followed by Judge Mariana Pfaelzer’s permanent injunction pending trial. Three years later, in 1997, the state of California petitioned that the case be dropped and the injunction dismissed. The court refused. The permanent injunction remained in place until 1999 when the proposition was deemed unconstitutional. Judge Pfaelzer ruled that the federal government was responsible for immigration, not the state of California.

Because the Republicans gloriously attached their moral conscience to a draconian ouevre, they allowed the proposition and their approval of it to brand them as intolerant, racist and cruel. Look at what they were asking. For school districts to validate their nativism and throw illegal 6 year olds out of class. For pregnant woman to be denied the right to health care. For government workers to phone ICE and report illegal coworkers.

Weaponizing nativism was the first step and criminalizing illegals stabilized the strategy. But it was so reprehensible, their level of fealty and glee, it paralyzed Republicans. In a state that honors diversity and the human capacity to endure tragedy, the Republicans were decadently obtuse. Hispanics left the California Republican party in a mass army and moderate whites did too. The absurd failure of the Republicans was one of vision- they didn’t play the long game, nor did they correctly look at the state’s trends that was already reshaping the electorate in the mid-90's. They overreached and it even turned Asians against them in an epic erosion of their base. All the screaming that illegals were to blame for the state’s problems wasn’t entirely rebuffed as a valid critique. But what to do with the illegals was so flawed, it turned the messenger into the message.


As policy, rejecting the human condition of immigrants is a losing California strategy. In 2016, 27% of the population was born outside the United States, twice as many as any other state. In the counties of Santa Clara, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Mateo, Alamada, Monterey and Orange, foreign born make up 30% of the population. 50% of California children have at least one immigrant parent.

49% of California’s immigrants are U.S. citizens. 26% are here legally via green card, visas and the like. 25% are here illegally. Many Californians know of an illegal immigrant.

Even though illegal immigration has slowed down in California the last 20 years, data from 2016 reveals that California is home to 4.2 million Mexican immigrants, 936,000 Chinese immigrants, 813,000 Filipino immigrants, 534,000 Vietnamese immigrants, 482,000 Indian immigrants. Between the years 2012–16, 58% of California immigrants came from Asia, 26% from Latin America.

To bully a state like California with 40 million people just because California is intruding upon the xenophobic fantasies of Donald Trump forces the presidential administration into a hard truth. An easy fix is never really easy.

What the Trump administration is throwing on the wall and hoping sticks overshadows, because of its dramatic effect, Trump’s intention, which is to keep at it with the brown people slander. He is waiting in the reeds for the public to dismiss his strategies and then go about their business. When he sees a distracted electorate, then he will return to familiar terrain unabated. That’s how his family separation policy went under the radar for months and months, the very quiet and brutal Sophie’s choice that coalesced abuse and tragedy as a multiple choice question: Give up your children or all of you rot in a cage.

Donald Trump is the post-modern antithesis, routinely botching (probably on purpose) the truth about illegals and their crime sprees. But even that isn’t the point of all of this white purity lust. There is no escaping the numbers and that America has a lot of brown skinned people. Situating himself as heroic as he tries to protect whiteness from the natural shape shifting of a depressed manufacturing society and, for that matter, a world where whiteness is losing value, entrenches Donald Trump as a public savior. White men feel farther and farther pushed out on the margins, replaced by people of color who they cannot control, don’t have agency over, can’t isolate and ignore. The peasant is now the king.

And so here we are on the road to Damascus but with a modern interpretation. Donald Trump can’t be converted like Paul the Apostle but he can stop persecuting illegals. Many of those are Central Americans and frankly Trump gave them hope. Now they are cautiously optimistic Trump will keep his word and relocate them to sanctuary cities in California. He won’t.

It was a mindless threat to placate him in the dark and to keep his base slavishly attached. It must be repeated though that in the detritus of one more grandiose failure, those who are nauseated by Donald Trump, which includes much of California, is smirking at his repeated failures to get anything worthwhile accomplished.

Writing: Race and Gender, Politics, Healthcare, Environmental Abuse, Domestic Violence

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