Trump's Threats Over CA's 'Sanctuary State' Bill Are Toothless

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As California passes legislation to become the first “sanctuary state,” President Donald Trump threatens to withhold funds. But are they really necessary?

Border patrol agent arresting an immigrant.

As the California legislature readies to enact Senate Bill 54, which turns the territory into the country's first “sanctuary” state, President Donald Trump has threatened to stop the flow of federal funding to back the state's law enforcement.

According to the Trump administration, if the state turns SB 54 into law, and California law enforcement agencies are no longer compelled to cooperate with federal immigration officials, then The Golden State will no longer receive tax-backed grants to be used in law enforcement.

To Democrats, this threat amounts to blackmail and nothing more. But as they promise to fight for every dollar while standing firm on their decision to carry on with the bill, some at The Intercept have pointed out that the state might not need this extra funding anyway.

So if Trump wants to threaten the state, why bother to show they are, indeed, feeling intimidated?

According to The Intercept, the program that would be targeted if California loses federal grants is the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), a bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994 meant to boost enforcement of immigration laws. Through this law, state jails can get reimbursement for detaining immigrants who are in the country without authorization.

This means local law enforcement agencies are basically making money off the federal government by helping it to arrest immigrants (even the ones who are here legally). If the state does, indeed, become a sanctuary territory, does California need this grant?

In 2016 alone, $50 million of federal tax-backed money was dispersed to county sheriffs across the state. In practice, attorney Angela Chan told The Intercept, this means that county sheriffs are “making money off ICE, and it’s unconscionable, really.”

Attorney Lena Graber, who works for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said relying on this grant also gives law enforcement incentives that keep them focused on targeting innocent immigrants.

“[I]f I’m a law enforcement agency and I run a jail and have to fund that jail, the federal government will pay me if I arrest an undocumented immigrant for a felony, but not a citizen,” she explained. “So the incentives are really disgusting.”

Furthermore, legal scholar Anjana Malhotra added in a paper reviewing the 1994 law, the grants have become an essential part of the immigration law enforcement machinery since they prompt “untrained state and local law enforcement officials throughout the country [to enlist] as a front line for criminal and civil enforcement of immigration laws.”

As a result, federal agencies were able to arrest 1.65 million immigrants during a five-year period. It's a feat that wouldn't have happened if California authorities weren't receiving grants to go after undocumented immigrants.

This perverse incentive might explain why local sheriffs have been some of the most vocal critics of SB 54. While some of them agree that they are motivated by the federal grants, they have attempted to scare legislators from voting for the bill by saying that turning the state into a sanctuary would make it difficult for them to remove undocumented immigrants who are violent offenders.

So if, perhaps, Trump is so willing to threaten the state into complying with federal immigration policy, why not let him, especially if the only real consequence is to cut a program that was actually hurting the innocent?

Banner and thumbnail image credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

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