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Defiance, resistance: The front lines of California’s war against the Trump administration

The Rev. Deborah Lee prays before attending a deportation hearing in San Francisco involving an immigrant of Cambodian descent. (Christie Hemm Klok/For The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — In the nerve center of the Trump resistance, some volunteers staff 24-hour hotlines in case immigration agents appear in the middle of the night. Others flood neighborhoods to film arrests and interview witnesses. Local governments are teaming with donors to hire lawyers for those facing expulsion hearings.

California and the Trump administration are engaged in an all-out war over immigration enforcement, the president’s signature issue on the campaign trail and in the White House. It is a deeply personal battle in the nation’s most populous and economically powerful state, where 27 percent of the 39 million residents are foreign-born.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week filed a lawsuit accusing California and its new slate of laws protecting immigrants of violating the Constitution and endangering federal agents. In blistering remarks in the state capital, the nation’s top law enforcement official compared the actions of state and local officials to “secession” and a “radical open-borders agenda.”

But California is not backing down.

In San Francisco, Mayor Mark Farrell (D) called Sessions a “moron” and has proposed expanding the budget for public defenders. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg (D) told public radio he would “proudly resist.” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (D), who outraged the White House by warning her city about an impending immigration roundup last month, says she has no regrets.

“Local governments and state government have stepped up in a way to protect immigrants like never before in my lifetime,” said Eric Cohen, the 57-year-old executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a national nonprofit organization headquartered in the Mission District of San Francisco.

The stakes are high for the administration because if California defies the White House on “sanctuary cities,” then others can, too, jeopardizing President Trump’s main campaign promise to deport many of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. The administration has urged states to follow the lead of Texas, which passed a law requiring officials to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement even as California enacted policies that do the opposite.

California’s defiance marks a seismic shift in a state that has morphed from the nation’s biggest critic of undocumented immigrants a generation ago into their fiercest protector.

In 1994, nearly 59 percent of voters passed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to deny public benefits to those here illegally and expel undocumented children from public schools. The measure ultimately was blocked in court. But outrage over its passage, fueled by the state’s rapidly growing Latino population, helped turn a Republican stronghold into a mecca for Democrats.

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Since then, California has granted undocumented immigrants privileges they can’t get in most other states: driver’s licenses, in-state college tuition and even some financial aid. After Trump took office and reversed Obama-era policies that shielded millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, the resistance shifted into overdrive.

California filed lawsuits that have temporarily blocked the president’s plans to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities and rescind work permits from undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States since childhood.

In January, this vast state officially became a sanctuary jurisdiction, restricting state and local governments from cooperating with immigration agents and warning employers that they could be fined if they voluntarily hand over workers’ private information to ICE.

Officials say they are not stopping immigration agents from arresting criminals and are making allowances so agents can take serious offenders into custody at state prisons. But ICE says California’s efforts puts its workforce in danger, forcing agents to pursue criminals on the streets, often without local police backup.

After Schaaf tipped off her constituents to the roundup, agents arrested only 200 of more than 1,000 targets, a rate that Matthew Albence, executive associate director of ICE, called “historically low.” Administration officials, including Sessions, blamed Schaaf for letting 800 targets go free.

Albence said assaults on immigration agents in the streets and detention centers have risen from 15 three years ago to 69 last year. In the first two months of fiscal 2018, the agency logged 24 assaults.

“Frankly the environment’s gotten difficult across the board,” he said. “California is obviously front and center with their sanctuary laws, making the whole state a sanctuary. But the job, by and large, has gotten more and more difficult and more and more dangerous for our officers.”

Schaaf said she has “tremendous respect for law enforcement.” The city worked with ICE in the past, she said, but severed ties with the agency amid concerns that its agents were ripping apart families whose only offense was coming to the United States in search of a better life. Officials also say they fear that ICE’s enforcement policies will make cities less safe by deterring undocumented immigrants from reporting crime.

In particular, Schaaf said, she was disturbed by the case of Maria Mendoza Sanchez, a bilingual oncology nurse, homeowner and mother of four who was forced to leave the United States in August with her husband, Eusebio.

“These are two law-abiding, hard-working Oaklanders that have lived in my city for 23 years,” Schaaf said. “But under this administration they were deported. They were ripped away from their four children.”

At a day laborer stand near a Home Depot in Oakland, immigrants waiting for construction jobs or grabbing lunch at a taco truck Friday praised the mayor for sticking up for immigrants. “We’re here to work,” said a 36-year-old woman from Mexico frying meat at the food truck who declined to give her name for fear of being deported. “We’re not trying to hurt anyone.”

But the rising tension and vitriol have prompted some to ask whether Oakland and other cities are taking the resistance too far. The Los Angeles Times, which has defended undocumented immigrants in its opinion pages, said the Oakland mayor crossed a line when she tipped off the city about the roundups last month.

“Her heart may have been in the right place,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial. “But some of those targeted by ICE agents could very well have been people with violent criminal pasts who can make no legitimate argument for avoiding deportation.”

California sheriffs have said they feel caught in the middle and hope the federal lawsuit against the state will help settle the role they should play in enforcing immigration policy.

On Thursday night, nearly 20 volunteers eager to expand the resistance filed into a conference room next to a bank in a nondescript office building in wealthy Marin County. They included a retired Presbyterian minister, a Vietnam veteran and others who said they were upset by news reports they’d seen of immigrants without serious criminal records being deported.

“I feel like I never really paid attention to politics until this past year,” said Jennifer Baldwin, a 46-year-old bookkeeper from Novato. “It’s become a very painful world.”

Olivia Beltran, a former undocumented immigrant from Mexico who is now a U.S. citizen, and Patty Hoyt, a Novato resident, helped train volunteers willing to take emergency phone calls and investigate whether immigration raids were happening. Other volunteers would venture out, even in the middle of the night, to document arrests and help those taken into custody find lawyers.

Hoyt said they would not interfere with law enforcement officers.

“You will be a witness,” she told the volunteers. “Be brave. But be realistic.”

Jesus Alvarez, a 69-year-old Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, signed up immediately. “It’s time for the community to rise up,” he said. “It’s time we defend ourselves.”

The Justice Department is suing California over its "sanctuary" laws, saying they obstruct enforcement of federal immigration law and harm public safety. (Video: Reuters)

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