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California leaders prepare to defend against Trump orders on immigration, sanctuary cities

File: Then-Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) listens during a news conference to discuss the rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump, at the U.S. Capitol, May 11, 2016, in Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
FILE PHOTO: California State Attorney General Xavier Becerra is among the state leaders reacting to President Donald Trump's latest orders on immigration and federal funding for sanctuary cities.

California political leaders largely closed ranks on news Wednesday of President Donald Trump's executive orders to withhold federal funding for sanctuary cities and move against undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

The president's actions prompted a flurry of responses from political leaders.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who was sworn in Tuesday and is expected to play a key role in defending California's immigrant-friendly policies and programs, said it was important to read the executive orders in context.

"Executive orders do not change existing law. Executive orders cannot contradict existing law. And executive orders can be challenged for violating constitutional and legal standards in their enforcement," Becerra's statement reads.

Becerra said California is prepared to work with the federal government, but added "we will remain ready to advance and defend California's policies wherever and whenever necessary." 

Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, among California's sanctuary cities, issued a statement:

Garcetti later told KPCC that "coercion" by the Trump administration over the city's policies would be unconstitutional.

 “The federal government cannot do that. The Supreme Court has been clear... And I think it’s a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy that no matter who you are in charge, you can’t just make people do things and withdraw their own tax dollars in an unconstitutional way because you have a disagreement on how we approach an issue,” the mayor said.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who Becerra replaced as attorney general following Harris' move to the Senate, called Trump's latest moves harmful to public safety.

“Directing a deportation force to break up immigrant families contributing to our country is not a show of strength, it damages our communities and erodes local economies," Harris said in a statement.

Members of the California Legislature joined in criticizing the president's executive orders.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said the orders would not return jobs to the economy, but would do the opposite.

"These are spiteful and mean-spirited directives that only instill fear in the hearts of millions of people who pay taxes, contribute to our economy and our way of life," he said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Possible local impact

If federal funding is withheld from sanctuary cities, both large and small municipalities could be impacted. Besides Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Ana and La Puente are among the localities that have resolved to protect undocumented immigrants.

According to the Los Angeles office of the City Administrative Officer, about 5.6 percent of Los Angeles’ $8.8 billion 2016-1017 budget comes from federal funds, or roughly $506 million.

The funds include community development block grants, which help pay for affordable housing, and grants that help pay for public services like port security, public safety, transit programs and libraries.

How much of this could be withheld is uncertain, said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and a KPCC board member.

“It’s not so much the existing funds that would be in danger,” Guerra said. “It is the future funds.” 

Applications for new federal grants could be denied, he said, or programs cut.

But Guerra and other experts say the move to block federal funding from sanctuary cities is likely to prompt litigation – in part because what constitutes a “sanctuary city” isn’t well-defined.

The Los Angeles Police Department's longstanding policy, Special Order No. 40, states officers "shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person." And as with several other jurisdictions, local police don’t hold immigrants for deportation at the behest of immigration agents beyond the time they are eligible for release.

Were there a federal legal challenge, “you would have to prove that being a sanctuary city would get in the way of federal action,” Guerra said. “What has been the substance? That would be the challenge they would have.”

In spite of local law enforcement policies, if federal immigration agents decided to raid a location in the city of L.A., the police department would not resist, he said.

Last week, the L.A. City Council voted to hire a city “immigrant advocate” to help shepherd the city through federal policy changes, and help identify funds that are at stake and how to preserve them.

Local officials are also awaiting details of Trump's move to deport immigrants with criminal records.

Although the president said more than two million will be removed from the country, that doesn't square with the number of immigrants who have committed deportable serious offenses, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist and immigration expert at University of California, Riverside.

It's likely the Trump administration will redefine the priorities for deportation to include those who committed minor offenses, he said. 

The Obama administration set a higher priority on deporting immigrants with felony offenses, opting not to focus on minor offenders, such as people with traffic-related offenses.

“Essentially this new executive order would wipe that away, to not differentiate among the different types of criminal offenses that the administration would prioritize,” Ramakrishnan said.

This story has been updated.