Today we dive into an election issue and a political flashpoint: Sanctuary Cities. You may recall the Trump administration threatened to withhold federal taxpayer funds from hundreds of American cities, counties and states that continue to shield illegal immigrants. What ever happened? You might be surprised by what we found when we followed the money.
Sharyl: Edwin Valdez is a U.S. citizen the son of illegal immigrants from Mexico.
Edwin Valdez: So me and my sisters were born here in the U.S. And my parents came to the U.S. from Mexico about 24, 25 years ago.
Today, he runs a hotline in California for a group called Sacramento Area Congregations Together, Sacramento ACT for illegal immigrant families that need help.
Sharyl: What's a typical call you might get relating to the issue that we're talking about?
Valdez: A typical call would be a family member that calls into the hotline and says, "Hey, my loved one just got picked up within a specific timeframe. What can you do for me? What can we do?”
As a sanctuary city, Sacramento protects some illegal immigrants from being deported by limiting cooperation with federal immigration officials or ice.
Valdez says his group aims to help the many hard working and deserving people who come to the U.S. for jobs and a better life—like his parents did, without going through the immigration system.
But not all illegal immigrants are peaceful. Josh Wilkerson was murdered by a high school classmate, an illegal immigrant with an arrest record. Josh’s mom recounts the horrible attack.
Laura Wilkerson (July 2016): He hit him so hard in the stomach that it made his spleen go into the spine and it sliced it in two. Then, he tortured him by strangling him then, he put him in a field and he set his body on fire.
In 2018, illegal immigrants accounted for 64% of all federal arrests. They make up an estimated 7% of the U.S. population but 15% of federal prosecutions for non-immigration crimes, and about one out of every four (24%) federal drug arrests, property arrests like theft and burglary (25%), and arrests involving fraud (28%).
Part of President Trump’s get-tough border policy was a pledge to withhold federal money from the places that won’t notify the feds before releasing illegal immigrant criminals back into society. Criminals who may be on the list for deportation.
President Donald Trump (December 2017): And we are throwing them the hell out of our country or we are putting them in prison. I don't want to give sanctuary cities money.
Michelle Steel is on the president’s side. She’s a first generation legal immigrant from South Korea and chairman of the board of supervisors in Orange County, California
Michelle Steel: So it's very dangerous that, you know, when you cannot trace these people and they commit another crime and coming back then public safety is in danger.
Steel at county board meeting (March 2018): And I raise the issue because government's first duty is public safety.
In 2018, Orange County voted to take a position against California’s sanctuary status.
Citizen of Orange County: It is absolutely shameful I oppose this resolution.
Citizen of Orange County: Lock 'em all up, are we a nation of laws or we are not?
Citizen of Orange County: If you vote NO on 14A, you are responsible for endangering human beings.
Orange County Board Member: Thank you for your comments. Alright, any opposed? Say none, that passes will all members present.
Sharyl: Can you guess what the impact might be if the Trump administration cuts off federal funds to California and cities and counties, for reasons that they are sanctuary cities, counties, and state?
Steel: You know what? California has been always fighting Trump administration, you know, regarding the immigration issues. It seems like it was a, you know, a year or two years ago that Trump administration said that we're going to cut off, but I don't think anything's been cut off until yet. So I don't know.
We set out to find: who has been cut off? And how much money is at stake?
The Department of Justice told us a lot of the public information we asked for is confidential or not being tracked.
What we do know is the biggest pot of federal money involved is called Byrne Justice Assistance grants. About $250 million dollars a year is divided among 900 cities, counties and states.
In 2017, the Trump administration imposed new conditions requiring any place that takes the money, to cooperate with ice. That forces sanctuary cities to give up the cash or change their ways. California gets the most money from the grant program, nearly $36 million dollars over the past two years. That’s on top of what its local governments get.
Sharyl (on camera): Now the big question is whether the threat of losing millions of dollars in federal taxpayer money is changing minds here on the ground in the sanctuary state of California, or its 20 sanctuary cities and counties.
Sharyl: Have you been in discussions or have you thought about the impact that could have and where we are with all of that?
Valdez: Yeah. We began to have those discussions with city and county officials because we realized that some cities and some counties do receive a good amount of money from the federal government. And so it puts them at risk of losing a lot of money. And really looking at the reality of things, we could be facing cuts to other resources that are very valuable to the community. That could be an unwanted backfire, basically.
State Senator Holly Mitchell: The state of California is going to continue to stand in the gap to protect our undocumented brothers and sisters, recognizing the role they play in contributing to our economy.
California State Senator Holly Mitchell represents mid-city Los Angeles.
Sharyl: What will be the impact if federal funds are cut off from these cities?
Mitchell: Well, we are of course going to fight that tooth and nail. Our attorney general here in California, I've lost track of the number of lawsuits he has now filed against the federal government, but it's something that we're going to continue to fight because A) we fundamentally believe in it. It reflects the values of California residents, and it's the right thing for the state government to do when the federal government turns their back on a major constituency that we all represent.
California and more than a dozen other locations sued to try to get the grant money without the strings attached. So far, most of them have won in lower courts. But earlier this year, a federal appeals court sided with the Trump administration in the one of the biggest cases: New York.
John Yoo: I think eventually it'll get settled by the Supreme Court.
Former Justice Department official John Yoo lives in the sanctuary city of San Francisco, which is also suing the Trump administration. He says he thinks he knows where all of this is headed.
John Yoo: The federal government can't commandeer or draft state governments and their police officers to carry out federal priorities. The Supreme Court has said that many times. They don't have to cooperate or help the federal government in any way. On the flip side, the federal government doesn't have to give California any money for policing or immigration either. And so that's what I think will happen in the end. And this is going to lead to some significant budget cuts for this city and for other cities in California, like San Diego and LA. But again, if my neighbors and I, we think we want to not cooperate with federal government and immigration, then we should really pay the cost for it, rather than trying to have our cake and eat it too. The last thing we should do is say, "Oh, let's symbolically have this great sanctuary policy, but we also want the federal government to give us as much money as possible."
As to the impact of President Trump’s strategy to punish sanctuary cities so far, the justice department told us “we don’t track whether individual sanctuary cities have changed their laws or practices to comply with grant conditions, but it is safe to infer that some cities and states have agreed to abandon sanctuary practices to continue participating in grant programs.”
Valdez told us the debate may be changing some minds or at least strategies here in Sacramento, California.
Sharyl: So what is the thought? That it's still worth it to keep the sanctuary city status, even if money is lost?
Valdez: We're still having those discussions. As of now, we haven't come to an answer of whether or not we should change, or how big of a threat it is. But there are cities that are considering laying back those restrictions or laying back those laws so that they could still protect and defend their community members without losing funding from the federal government.
The way things are going, it’s the Supreme Court that will have the final say on whether American cities and states have to choose between getting federal money and giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants.
While the challenges work their way through court, millions of dollars are being held in limbo.