No safe haven: Sacramento’s troubled relationship with undocumented immigrants

Davis is for ‘dreamers'—but Sacramento is for deportations

Andrea Grayton, director of UC Davis’ AB540 and Undocumented Student Center says there are roughly 300 Dream Act students on campus.

Andrea Grayton, director of UC Davis’ AB540 and Undocumented Student Center says there are roughly 300 Dream Act students on campus.

photos by kevin cortopassi

As a child, UC Davis student Ana Maciel was taught to look out for the green buses. Immigration agents drove them around her California hometown of Soledad, picking up the undocumented and transporting them to holding facilities for deportation.

“When your parents tell you those aren’t the buses you want to be on—and when your parents tell you ’Let us know if you see one so we can get out,’—it’s terrifying,” she said. “We’d see the green buses and lock ourselves in our apartment.”

Maciel was instructed not to go places with school friends where she might be asked to show ID. She was told not to go out at night, period, as it was believed this was when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were more likely to be on the prowl for undocumented migrants.

Her parents’ rules and warnings have had lasting impact.

“Even seeing a cop sometimes really scares me,” Maciel said. “You see a cop and you immediately panic. The panic is not going to go away. My body knows what fear is.”

Maciel, 21, is a so-called “dreamer” a college student who grew up in the United States, but in the country’s shadows. She had been brought north from Guanajuato, Mexico, by her parents when she was 1 year old but her legal status remains undocumented. In theory, she is a “dreamer” or a part of the DREAM Act, a program that would, if it were passed into law, give citizenship consideration to children of undocumented immigrants.

Despite a fear of ICE and other government agencies, over the past few years Maciel has pushed herself into the spotlight at UC Davis. The senior, double-majoring in women and gender studies, and Chicana/o studies, successfully campaigned for the creation of an on-campus center to cater to the needs of undocumented students. She feels she has helped create a safe space for people in a similar situation.

The city of Davis also declared itself a “Sanctuary City” in the ’80s. Now it’s one of more than two dozen cities statewide that have ordered their law enforcement agents to back off of going after the undocumented.

Sacramento, however, hasn’t followed Davis’ lead, which means local law enforcement still works with ICE up to a point. Sheriff’s deputies, while no longer holding people arrested for low-level offenses on detainer requests, do still invite deportation agents into jails to conduct interviews. Local law enforcement also informs ICE on when an undocumented immigrant will be released from jail—in case they want to be there to arrest them.

And the city’s head lawman, Sheriff Scott Jones—who’s running for Congress in 2016—wants to keep it this way.

In other words, in Sacramento it’s still not safe for “dreamers,” for undocumented immigrants like Maciel.

Sacramento, de facto sanctuary city?

The American Community Survey recently estimated that 4.6 percent of Sacramento County’s population, or 65,000 people, are undocumented; that’s a huge number of people living on the county’s legal periphery. And, although it’s not a sanctuary city, something has changed in recent years. In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which—had it not been struck down by the courts—would have barred the undocumented from virtually all public services, including access to the education system.

Twenty-one years on, California’s electorate is in a very different place, at least in part because young people like Maciel have told their stories and, in doing so, have tapped into a vein of local empathy. As a result, the state’s political process has swung against draconian anti-immigration measures and closer toward tolerance and inclusion. In the wake of a series of court rulings, memos from California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris, the signing into law of California’s TRUST Act in 2013, and directives from President Barack Obama that make sheriffs’ cooperation with ICE detainer requests optional instead of mandatory, law enforcement has significantly ratcheted down its relationship with ICE.

As a result, argues Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, who opposes the drift toward state immigration policy crowding out federal law, Sacramento is increasingly a “de facto” sanctuary city. When California passed the TRUST Act, which mandates local law enforcement not hold minor offenders on detainer requests while ICE gets around to sending in agents to pick them up, Jones and other sheriffs asked the Obama administration to challenge the law.

“The clear message I got back,” Jones said in an interview with SN&R, “was there would be no challenge under this administration. So I came back and started complying with the TRUST Act. I would much rather be complying with federal law than state law, knowing it’s a federal issue.”

Those opposed to amnesty for the undocumented argue that providing sanctuary-city status only provides support to a demographic that, by definition, is in some way outside of the law. Jones is more circumspect, instead arguing it takes away a valuable tool from law enforcement officers fighting to keep the city and county safe.

“I’m not against the undocumented population,” Jones said. “We have a huge population here and most of them are great. They’re part of what makes Sacramento diverse.”

Ana Maciel, a “dreamer” student at UC Davis, grew up with the fear of deportation.

But, he adds, the sanctuary movement makes it harder for him, as a sheriff, to get serious criminals with undocumented status off the streets and into the hands of the feds.

“I couldn’t care less about people’s immigration status,” the sheriff says. “But I think criminals should be held accountable.”

In the past, however, Jones has taken a more hardline approach.

As such, activists don’t buy this softer stance, arguing one reason local law enforcement opposes sanctuary status is that the sheriff still accepts federal dollars to house undocumented detainees in local jails.

“We went in and met with the sheriff and his deputies and they gave signals they were trying to move away from their very close relationship with ICE,” says Eric Vega, an activist with the Sacramento Immigration Coalition, as he sits in the art gallery space inside Sol Collective near Midtown.

“Our feeling is they have not gone far enough.”

After all, Congress mandates that upwards of 30,000 immigration detention beds have to be filled every night nationally, and they put a lot of money into local law enforcement to make sure that goal is realized. For Vega, Jones’ motive is less about high political principle and more about dollars and cents.

“They have,” he says in frustration “a vested interest in having beds occupied,” since the federal government pays sheriffs’ offices a per diem to house immigration detainees.

On any given day, the sheriff acknowledges, Sacramento-area jails house between 50 and 150 immigration detainees, people arrested by the feds but housed locally while they await deportation hearings.

On the other end of the causeway, the conversation about how to protect the local undocumented population is one Davis residents have been having for years.

For Rev. Elizabeth Banks, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis, stories such as Maciel’s help explain why she and her congregants have been so active in the movement in recent years. They’ve pushed city council to reaffirm sanctuary status and are also working with the Yolo Immigration Network, holding immigration workshops at the church and journeying down south to the borderlands with Mexico to experience firsthand the conditions faced by those who try to walk across the border.

The city of Davis first declared sanctuary status in the mid-1980s, when U.S.-sponsored civil conflicts in Central America were killing hundreds of thousands of people and sending countless more into self-imposed exile. Some fled north as refugees; many more illegally entered the country and joined the shadowy ranks of the undocumented.

In the ’80s, many cities and churches declared support for these immigrants and announced their intention of providing material resources as well as—in the case of some churches—the moral cover of sanctuary. Davis counted itself among such cities, passing a resolution in 1986, specifically providing sanctuary to El Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees.

More recently, in 2007 and again in 2014, the city council passed resolutions reaffirming its sanctuary status—this time no longer for fleeing full-scale civil wars and military dictatorships, but instead for undocumented residents who’ve traveled north in recent decades mainly to escape poverty and drug wars.

“More than anything, it’s symbolic,” explained Nathan Ellstrand, co-chair of Davis’ Human Relations Commission. “It’s saying as a city, ’You live in Davis; if you’re not committing crimes, law enforcement won’t turn you in to ICE.”

It is, however, also far more than just an empty gesture. In places where law enforcement routinely cooperates with ICE, the undocumented don’t report crimes and are reluctant to be called as witnesses or cooperate with police.

Take ICE out of the equation, and law enforcement finds that many locals are suddenly more willing to step forward. That’s why the Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto was one of the first law enforcement officers to publicly voice support for the California TRUST Act, the 2013 legislation authored by Tom Ammiano, which limits cooperation with hold requests. It’s also why big-city police departments in Los Angeles and San Francisco started expressing opposition to the federal Secure Communities Program—which mandated local law enforcement honor detainer requests for all undocumented people held in their jails—years before it was eventually dismantled.

The Davis police, says Ellstrand, “don’t see [the undocumented] as a threat to our community. They’re seen as essential to the economy here and to the culture at Davis.”

As part of the immigrant-rights group Alianza, Rhonda Kravitz helps undocumented students get financial assistance.

“It’s a humongous commitment,” Maciel said. “It gives me a sense of security, of knowing that if something were to happen they would advocate and do something to support us. That’s what the sanctuary city means to me.”

‘It makes a difference'

For local activists, council ordinances have been hugely significant.

“I really wanted Davis to be a sanctuary city,” Banks explains. “I’d met the students. And I knew the fear the undocumented live in if they’re not in a sanctuary city. For institutions such as churches that can speak to the rights of people, speak to the government, it makes a difference—as a part of a larger movement, it’s important. It’s one thread. It makes a difference to that family, that person.”

Seeking to broaden support for the undocumented in Davis, Banks went to the city council on their behalf.

“I talked about how I had been down to [the humanitarian border group] No More Deaths, and had visited the shrines where the immigrants had died in the desert,” she said.

She also talked about seeing would-be immigrants, caught in the desert, paraded before courtrooms in chains, and of visiting inmates in detention centers in the Sacramento region.

“People have been very emotionally moved,” Banks says.

For Maciel, Davis’ approach to the undocumented has provided a rare opportunity—to succeed in an academic setting that, for generations, has been virtually inaccessible to the undocumented. Historically, those without legal residency status have fared dismally in the upper echelons of the state’s education system: Few graduated high school, even fewer attended college and hardly any left university with a four-year degree.

In recent years, however, as debates over immigration and the status of the undocumented have roiled one state after another, much has changed in California. In 2001, California’s legislators passed Assembly Bill 540, allowing undocumented California residents to go to public universities in the state as in-state residents rather than having to pay far higher out-of-state tuition fees. Then, in 2011, Governor Brown signed the California DREAM Act into law, extending state financial assistance to the undocumented. Suddenly, university education became something far more than a pipe dream for hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented Californians.

Add into the mix Obama’s recent executive actions regarding immigrants, especially the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order, and opportunities for California’s young, undocumented students started to blossom.

When Maciel arrived at UC Davis, she was part of that first cohort of “dreamer” students. But, despite the political space that had opened up with the passage of the Dream Act, the university itself didn’t really have an infrastructure in place, or trained advisers, to help these students navigate the campus and the complexities of bureaucratic systems their families had, generally, spent a lifetime avoiding. As a result, information was often hard to come by, or wrong information was provided; and, frequently, the undocumented still felt vulnerable and alone.

In her second year at the university, Maciel and some of her friends on campus started meeting to discuss ways to improve the environment for undocumented students. They came up with the idea of an AB 540 and Undocumented Student Center. that would cater primarily to the needs of this group of young men and women on campus, providing mentoring, advice on how to apply for assistance without a permanent Social Security number, suggestions on how to travel to conferences without a form of identification valid for U.S. air travel, etc.

In fall 2013, five of the students formally submitted their proposal. Shortly afterward and with the UC system under President Janet Napolitano looking for ways to make the system more accessible to the undocumented, the college committed funds for such a center to be created.

Today, says the AB540 Center’s director, Andrea Gaytan, there are roughly 300 DREAM Act students at UC Davis—up from only 78 two years ago.

“The bottom line is all of our students are admitted under the same guidelines,” Gaytan says. “It behooves us as an institution to make sure every student has the opportunity to thrive and grow and graduate.”

Gaytan attended UC Davis as an undergraduate in the early 1990s. Early in her career, she worked as an ESL instructor in Japan and in Mexico and, she says, has always made a point to get learn her students’ stories.

“People are starting to understand the contributions of immigrants to California and to our communities,” she said. “Those six degrees of separation have really shrunk. Maybe we can only get three degrees of separation now before we meet somebody deeply impacted by immigration. Change happens based on personal interactions and shared experiences.”

Slowly, that change is occurring in Sacramento, too. Throughout the greater region there are many hundreds, possibly thousands, more “dreamers”— at Sacramento City College, at Sacramento State University, where the financial aid office estimates more than 800 have applied for assistance this past year; and at the many community colleges that dot the region. Recently, Assemblywoman Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando) put forward AB 1366, a bill that would have established AB 540 resource centers at campuses around the state. So far, however, it hasn’t gone anywhere.

Rev. Elizabeth Banks, along with members of the Unitarian Universalist Church, has pushed the Davis city council to reaffirm its sanctuary city status in recent years.

Yet, campus by campus, similar centers are now being set up in Sacramento, to reach out to the undocumented and to provide them access to a growing number of state resources—as well as to help them navigate the federal programs created over the past few years by Obama’s executive actions.

Many of California’s largest metropolises, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have now declared themselves sanctuary cities.

Eric Vega and other Sacramento-based activists, including members of the faith-based group Area Congregations Together, and a coalition of unions led by the local chapter of the SEIU, hope that they can soon convince Sacramento to join the list. There has been, says Vega, “a paradigm shift” in how Californians think about the undocumented.

Were Sacramento to pass such an ordinance, there would be some impact on how the county sheriff’s department cooperates with ICE, but, more significantly, there would be a change in the culture.

In part, this debate is one of symbolism, about moral statements of opposition to a set of policies and values. In particular, there’s opposition to the post-9/11 Secure Communities Program. Until it ended in late 2014, the program mandated that if local law enforcement arrested an undocumented immigrant, even for a crime as petty as trespassing, or selling produce on the street without a license, they had to hold them until ICE officers came to pick them up.

In that regard, declarations of opposition to cooperation with harsh federal policies is somewhat akin to cities in the ’80s declaring themselves to be “nuclear-free zones,” more in opposition to the vast buildup of nuclear weapons than out of any real expectation that the cities could genuinely opt out of the nuclear era.

“There’s no real thing as a ’sanctuary city,’” argues UC Davis School of Law Dean Kevin Johnson. “What there are are policies regarding state and local cooperation with the feds regarding immigration enforcement. [But] the moral imperative is a bigger one. We’re making a statement against the way current immigration laws are enforced.”

“Our main purpose is comprehensive immigration reform,” says Rhonda Kravitz, who works with the immigrant-rights group Alianza. In addition to other services, the group helps young “dreamers” apply for scholarships and other financial assistance.

Absent legal reform, she says, sanctuary cities are “crucial.”

“I look at the dreamer movement as one of the most important civil-rights movements right now,” Kravitz says.

Earlier this fall semester, using grant money from the campus’s student leadership organization, Sac State did set up the small Dreamer Resource Center, somewhat modeled on the AB540 Center at Davis. Run out of a small campus office, it holds workshops on financial assistance and trains staff and faculty on difficulties experienced by their undocumented students. It’s also launched a small fellowship program that provides stipends to students who want to research related social issues.

“One of the goals of the Dreamer Resource Center is to create a campus culture of knowledge and sensitivity to the issues faced by undocumented students,” explained Viridiana Diaz, director for Sac State’s College Assistance Migrant Program.

Next year, funds permitting, the center will be able to hire a full-time coordinator; until then, it relies on the efforts of a handful of students and the volunteer work of many current and retired faculty.

Meanwhile, back in Davis, the AB540 Center now employs seven students, some of them undocumented, others not, to run its programs. Students come in or, if they prefer to preserve their anonymity, meet staff off-site and ask their questions. They see other students in the same situation as they are in, facing the same challenges, trying to navigate 21st-century America’s immigration maze. “It takes away a little bit of the stigma,” explains Gaytan.

In mid-September, shortly before the quarter’s classes began, Davis police officers —working under sanctuary city guidelines—came to the center to take part in staff training. A local police officer is even on the center’s advisory board.

“It’s the institution working very hard to be holistic in how we support our students,” Gaytan continues, as she explains how activists are hoping to convince every town in which a UC campus is situated to become a sanctuary city.

“Who else on campus loses their rights when they step off a campus property? For undocumented students, that’s definitely a concern.”

For Banks, the reverend, such support for these shelters—from schools, from law enforcement, from average citizens—isn’t just about legal action, it’s about respect and basic human rights.

“The sanctuary movement is a part of the change,” Banks said. “Like civil disobedience. It humanizes people. They are not criminals.”