Inland Empire residents, activists, and officials are divided on the issue of sanctuary cities, and with recent events, the local debate is intensifying. KVCR's Ben Purper has this feature report.
The Inland Empire was brought into the national debate over sanctuary cities last week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to withhold federal funds from the city of San Bernardino for being a “sanctuary city” – something local officials found confusing, since the city never declared itself a sanctuary city.
But Sessions was correct in recognizing that the sanctuary city debate has been raging in the Inland Empire for quite some time now. Sanctuary city proposals in inland cities like Riverside and Rialto have seen huge crowds on both sides of the issue, creating a hot debate in a region where changing demographics have upended traditionally conservative politics.
Latinos make up about half of the Inland Empire’s four million-plus population, and a report by the Migration Policy Institute estimated that roughly 275,000 undocumented immigrants called the area home in 2015. But that isn’t enough to make sanctuary city proposals easy to pass.
Alejandra Molina has been reporting on immigration issues for Riverside’s Press-Enterprise for several years. She says that the issue is too divisive in the Inland Empire for cities to pass sanctuary proposals.
“I think it’s pretty unlikely for Inland cities to declare themselves sanctuaries,” she says. “It just seems like there’s so much chaos whenever the conversation even comes up in public meetings. So in February in Riverside the city took up the conversation and the issue wasn’t even on the agenda. So from what we covered at the P.E., there were more than two hundred people there and people were yelling and chanting at each other and so since then the item has not been placed on the agenda.”
In the city of Rialto, city council member Rafael Trujillo caused an uproar just for attempting to hold an exploratory meeting on the topic of sanctuary cities. Protesters, including members of an organization called the Remembrance Project which describe themselves as “A Voice for Victims Killed by Illegal Aliens,” showed up and effectively stopped the meeting. Trujillo has since apologized.
According to Molina, “Here in the Inland area these anti-illegal immigration groups are prevalent, and a lot of these city council members may not reflect the Latino immigrant communities, so it’s a mix of those two things that are making it hard for these sanctuary city designations to go through.”
One of the most prominent of these groups is called We the People Rising, an Inland Empire-based activist group who showed up at the Riverside City Council meeting.
Robin Hvidston, Executive Director of We the People Rising, sums up the organization’s main beliefs: “We think public policy should be formulated for American citizens and that they should be the first priority.”
The organization has showed up to several city council meetings, protested outside the sheriff’s office – basically, whenever the issue of sanctuaries comes up in the Inland Empire, they’re there.
Hvidston says, “Our focus is this. Our elected officials should be helping American citizens. For example, we have a huge burgeoning homeless population in our state. We have a growing disabled population that should be the focus of legislation or unemployed, and especially our veterans. How can we not be taking care of veterans properly when we’re writing legislation for people that are not even supposed to be in this country?”
Hvidston says We the People Rising is not opposed to immigrants; they’re opposed to illegal immigration.
“And in addition, sanctuary cities, when they take the policy where a person’s legal status is of no issue, that also invites more people or human smugglers to settle in those areas. So it’s a policy built upon lawlessness, because the premise is you can break federal law. And it can ultimately lead to more lawbreaking, chaos, and again sends the wrong message to the world that you can enter and reside in this particular area, and law enforcement will not be able to take action.”
But Dr. Francisco Pedraza, professor and coordinator of the Politics of Race, Immigration, and Ethnicity Consortium at the University of California, Riverside, disputes that argument.
According to Pedraza, “[i]t turns out that there is evidence on both counts. So, in terms of the levels of crime increasing because a city declares sanctuary city status, there is no evidence that supports that assertion. Zero. In fact, to the extent the evidence indicates there’s any effect on crime, it goes in the opposite direction.”
Dr. Pedraza says that sanctuary status doesn’t actually attract immigrants at all, criminal or not.
“What we know about the patterns of immigration and settlement is that they’re all a function of where jobs are. And those jobs tend to attract people not because they’re complemented by other laws but just because people want to be able to work.”
When asked if he thought more cities in the Inland Empire might declare themselves sanctuaries, Dr. Pedraza said it’s difficult to tell, as local officials are torn between local and national politics.
“The reason why it’s complicated is that some of those federal pressures, including the threat to withhold financial resources, that has fallen on the ears of many local officials. And one of the strategies that they’ve decided to do is play it safe. Rather than say we’re for or against sanctuary city policy, instead they just stay mum.”
The only city in San Bernardino or Riverside counties, which encompass both the Inland Empire and the Coachella Valley, to actually declare itself a sanctuary city is Cathedral City. We asked Riverside County Supervisor Victor Manuel Perez, whose district includes Cathedral City, to comment on the prospect of more sanctuary cities popping up in his district, but his communications director told us, “Supervisor Perez has no comment.”
For now, it seems that the best hope for those who support sanctuary status in the Inland Empire is SB 54, the bill currently in the California State Assembly that would effectively make California one sprawling “sanctuary state.”
Robin Hvidston, whose organization opposes SB 54, predicts that the law will most likely pass.
“But our hope is that if it does pass, and it does become law, federal law trumps state law. So we would hope that it will not be a law that will be easily enforced or efficiently or correctly enforced according to that law.”