Jason Walsh: It’s time Sonoma came out of the shadows – and discussed sanctuary cities

“Six hundred miles to that Mexican border – they chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves” – Woody Guthrie, “Deportee”

About two months ago, a former Sonoma City Councilmember stopped by the I-T offices to discuss the idea of Sonoma declaring itself a “sanctuary city” – a term making headlines these days about municipalities which openly declare opposition to enforcing federal immigration laws outside of violent crimes and other threats to public safety. According to the LA Times, there are about 400 such sanctuary cities in America, virtually all with significant Hispanic populations, chief among them San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and other major cities.

Cities declare themselves sanctuaries for a variety of reasons – among them is to reassure the otherwise law-abiding undocumented locals that they don’t have to live entirely in the shadows; local law enforcement isn’t interested in their immigration status. It’s meant to send a message that, in the eyes of local government, they and their families are members of the community and will be treated as such.

I broached the subject of sanctuary cities a few weeks ago with a current member of the Sonoma City Council, who didn’t want to jump on the subject but was aware the issue was percolating.

Well, since then it’s gone from percolating to full boil.

On Jan. 25, President Trump issued an executive order to crack down on sanctuary cities by withholding federal funds as a punishment for what the administration believes is a violation of federal law – that could mean a loss of tens of millions of dollars to big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. No doubt, self-described sanctuary cities sat up and took notice; for every Miami-Dade County, whose Republican mayor quickly scurried into line with the White House directive, there was a San Francisco, which thumbed its nose at the new President and filed suit against the administration for violating the state’s Constitutional rights to sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment.

And that was the second-most alarming turn of events for law-abiding immigrants across the country.

Because on Jan. 27, the President doubled down on his immigration stratagem when he ordered the now infamous travel ban on seven predominately Muslim nations – which Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani told “Fox News” had emerged from the President’s request for a “Muslim ban” – creating chaos at airports across the country, and unsettling the nerves of immigrant families – documented and not – on every street in every town in every county in every state.

Given Sonoma Valley’s reliance on the hard work, family ethos and community contributions from the area’s sizable Hispanic population, it should be unsettling here, if anywhere.

Which is why Sonoma needs to have its own sanctuary city conversation. A good place to start would be at the public comment period of the Feb. 6 City Council meeting. The agenda that evening is light; it’s an ideal time for locals to be heard.

As it happens, the Santa Rosa City Council is planning to consider declaring itself a sanctuary city at its next meeting, Feb. 7.

Sonoma shouldn’t let its neighbors to the northwest beat us to the moral high ground.

This isn’t to say Sonoma should necessarily declare sanctuary. But, in light of recent events, the question demands to be asked.

What are the ramifications of Sanctuary Sonoma? Is there a heavy price to pay if we do? Is there an even heavier price if we don’t?

What, if any, federal funds are there to lose? According to City Manager Cathy Capriola, Sonoma does occasionally receive federal funding for capitol projects – the Chase Street Bridge replacement, for instance, brought in $2 million in federal grants. But, supposedly, those types of grants would be safe, since funds would have to bear a direct link to immigration enforcement for the feds to withhold them due to non-compliance with federal immigration law.

Another question: Can Sonoma deliver the same pledge to undocumented community members, without “coming out,” so to speak, as a sanctuary city?

According to the Press Democrat, for instance, the Santa Rosa City Council might consider the term “welcoming city,” a more under-the-radar way of saying “sanctuary” without shouting “sanctuary!” Or, if a town wanted to play it even safer, it could simply issue a declaration of support for AB 4, the state Assembly bill from 2013 which almost, but not quite, proclaims California as a sanctuary state. The California Trust Act, as the bill is known, prohibits law enforcement “from detaining prisoners at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unless a probable cause hearing has been held and a federal warrant issued; exceptions are allowed for prisoners who have committed violent felonies.” It essentially prevents local cops from holding anyone on the basis of being undocumented and requires a judge to get involved before they do.

But maybe we don’t want Sanctuary Sonoma; perhaps these other faux-sanctuary proposals aren’t a hand we want to play. After all, local enforcement doesn’t seek out documentation for non-violent offenders as it is, so a “declaration” about it is largely symbolic, right?

Not necessarily. Words have meaning; message is everything.

There’s nothing symbolic in telling potentially besieged members of the community: “We’ve got your back.” There’s nothing ephemeral about voices of a city speaking out for a city’s voiceless. And the echo of that support would reverberate for miles beyond the city limits.

But perhaps the undocumented, the Dreamers, the Michoacan drug-war refugees who pick our grapes, wash our linens and attend our elementary schools aren’t worth the sand that might be kicked in our face by 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

In the end, it’s a simple question:

Does Sonoma want to stand with its undocumented neighbors – or simply stand by?

While they’re chased like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.