White House threat to remove funding from jurisdictions that don't comply with immigration crackdown has parallels to antebellum law punishing officials for sheltering escaped slaves.
California could become America's first "sanctuary state" for undocumented immigrants, turning public buildings into havens for undocumented people and preventing local law-enforcement from aiding the Trump administration's deportation efforts.
"We are making it clear the State of California will not be complicit with authoritarian policies that do not improve the safety of our communities," state Senator Nancy Skinner said as the public safety committee approved the measure, which still must make it through further legislative hurdles, the East Bay Express reported.
Four other states with Democratic governors, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia and Washington, have sued US President Donald Trump over his threat, but California's model would be the first of its kind, modelled off the many "sanctuary cities" that have defied Trump's calls for deportation of the undocumented.
A sanctuary state would be similar to a sanctuary city, but bigger. Instead of just a restriction by the city on its resources going to the help the federal government track down the undocumented, the prohibition applies to all state level law-enforcement as well.
Trump, in an executive order January 25, blamed sanctuary cities for causing "immeasurable harm" to the country.
"Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States. These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic," the order reads. "Jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable Federal law do not receive Federal funds, except as mandated by law."
San Francisco has also taken the step of suing Trump and federal authorities to stop the threat of a funding cut for defending its local laws.
"The president's executive order is not only unconstitutional, it's un-American," said San Francisco district attorney Dennis Herrera, the Los Angeles Times reported. "That is why we must stand up and oppose it. We are a nation of immigrants and a land of laws. We must be the ‘guardians of our democracy' that President Obama urged us all to be in his farewell address."
Lawmakers opposed to Senate Bill 54 counter that opposing the federal government would prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from deporting undocumented people who pose a danger to public safety. They also note Trump's threat to withhold federal funding from states that defy harsher immigration rules.
"This bill would, among other things, prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies and school police and security departments from using resources to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect, report, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes, as specified," the draft of SB 54 reads.
Supporters also use a public safety argument, however, saying that local law enforcement needs the cooperation of undocumented people to help solve crimes to which they might be a witness. If they fear deportation, they'll be less likely to come forward to police with information.
"I know this as a former prosecutor, if you don't have the cooperation of victims and the community you will get nowhere," said state Senator Hannah Beth Jackson.
The move to turn California into the nation's first sanctuary state was welcomed by immigrant rights groups.
"Every state has the right to enact laws to protect and serve its residents. California's message to the Trump Administration and other not so immigrant-friendly states is ‘immigrants are welcome here' and you would be a fool not to do everything possible to protect these families and workers," Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, told TRT World.
"The great thing about our nation is that both the federal government and each state have rights and responsibilities. The Federal government could be a headache for California but it will have a hard time enacting all its flawed policies here," he added.
The last time local jurisdictions provided similar sanctuary came in the political chaos before the Civil War, when states and towns unofficially sheltered escaped slaves in defiance of federal laws that let Southern slave owners go into Northern free states in pursuit of human beings they claimed the legal right to own.
These slave-catchers, hired by plantation owners, sometimes faced virulent, armed opposition from their fellow Americans. These efforts were lead by free African Americans who lived in the north, in defence of people who had escaped slavery. Eventually, these isolated but increasingly frequent skirmishes served as the tinder that ignited into the American Civil War.
Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, states were required to cooperate with slave catchers, and imposed severe financial penalties on officials who refused. But now, instead of private mercenaries working on behalf of plantation owners, the people in pursuit of the marginalised group are federal agents themselves.
Then, as now, the fundamental disagreement lies over the legal rights of marginalised people, often menial or agricultural labourers, living in the United States. Trump's promise to build a wall along the US border with Mexico and profoundly restrict immigration to the US means that some states don't feel they have an ally in Washington.
Similar measures are slated for consideration in the California State Assembly, where legislators have forcefully condemned the federal government.
California would join four hundred "sanctuary cities" across the United States, some of them defying the White House in unequivocal terms. Those include California's largest, San Francisco and Los Angeles. On the country's east coast, Boston Mayor Michael Walsh made a forceful condemnation of Trump's attempts to coerce or co-opt his city into aiding federal immigration authorities.
"We will not back down from our values that make us who we are as a city. We will fight for our residents, whether immigrant or not, and provide the best quality of life for all Bostonians. I will use all my power within lawful means to protect all Boston residents, even if that means using City Hall itself as a last resort," Walsh said.
"If people want to live here they'll live here, they can use my office, they can use any office in this building, any place they want to use, they can use this building as a safe space."
AUTHOR: Wilson Dizard