The Electoral Politics of California's Sanctuary State Law By Nicky Riordan
Leading up to an election that is anticipated to bring Democratic gains to Congress and state offices across the country, an intense partisan battle is being waged in a major progressive stronghold and the Trump Administration is actively fanning the flames.
President Trump recently hosted California Republican leaders and lawmakers at the White House, touting recent attempts to undermine efforts in the state that halt enhanced immigration enforcement by federal agencies. One of the major targets is a law passed last year, the California Values Act, which restricts the way state and local law enforcement agencies can coordinate with federal immigration agencies. It also made California the first true sanctuary state and electrified advocates on both sides of the aisle around immigration policy.
Internal division within the state on immigration is nothing new, but past examples of efforts to crack down on this population have proven disastrous to the Republican Party. Now both parties are using the law and its implications to drum up support for the midterm elections in November.
The struggle is manifesting itself in interesting ways. The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of California in March over a collection of new laws that Attorney General Sessions argued “reflect a deliberate effort by California to obstruct the United States’ enforcement of federal immigration law.” In the past couple months, various municipalities and cities in California have passed ordinances or voted in favor of support of this lawsuit, breaking rank with the state and accelerating the debate.
The first to take a stand was the city of Los Alamitos, located in the conservative Orange County, California, where the City Council and Mayor passed an ordinance to support the lawsuit against the state. Following their lead were more prominent voices, including the Boards of Supervisors for Orange County and San Diego County, despite local protests and opposition to these efforts.
One San Diego Supervisor commented that California should not be going “rogue” and in a strange turn of events, conservative supporters of the lawsuit are pointing to the importance of federal jurisdiction on issues of law enforcement and immigration. In reality, the law and the lawsuit reflect highly partisan efforts to ignite their bases heading into the midterm season.
Republican Party leaders hoping to gain ground in California recently hosted meetings for local officials on options for showing symbolic support for the lawsuit, and seven Congressional Republicans fighting for their lives in districts won by Clinton in 2016 are using this issue as a lightning rod leading into the June primaries.
A recent statewide poll conducted through Berkeley IGS found that voters living in these now purple districts narrowly oppose the state law, making support or opposition a high-risk decision akin to Republican support for Prop 187 in 1994. Prop 187 aimed to prevent immigrants from accessing public service, but was deemed unconstitutional by a federal district court. Still, the full embrace of it by the California Republican party has been attributed to the decline of the party in the state since the 90’s.
Meanwhile, the ACLU has begun suing localities who have passed ordinances in support of the lawsuit, and the author of the California Values Act, Kevin de Leon, is playing the role of activist in his run against longtime Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein on a progressive agenda. The mayor of Oakland recently came under scrutiny for warning residents of impending ICE raids and signaling her decision to side with immigrants and activists in the state. The majority of California voters support the new law, so Democratic leaders see this as a winning issue for their candidates.
Opponents of California’s efforts to protect immigrants say that it is important to listen to law enforcement concerns about the decision to flout federal policy,. Proponents argue that stricter immigration policies weaken efforts to build trust in local communities and make the work of law enforcement agencies less effective in the long run. Either way, this is an issue that speaks to the deepest parts of each party base, and the all-in efforts of both parties to use it in November highlights the importance of base enthusiasm in this midterm season.
In a state that is quickly on track to become majority-minority within a generation, it is indeed a high risk proposition to side with the Trump Administration and a DOJ that reflects the harshest representation of law enforcement in the country. The upcoming June primaries will likely provide important insight into which side of the conversation is gaining ground.
Nicky Riordan (@nriordan120), Political Analyst, Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research