Santa Ana joins the ranks of SoCal 'sanctuary cities' — what does that mean?

In this file photo, a woman demonstrates for immigrants rights at the civic center in Santa Ana, Calif., Tuesday, May 1, 2007. The city council voted Tuesday to declare itself a
In this file photo, a woman demonstrates for immigrants rights at the civic center in Santa Ana, Calif., Tuesday, May 1, 2007. The city council voted Tuesday to declare itself a "sanctuary" to protect undocumented residents against threats of deportation.
Chris Carlson/AP

The Santa Ana City Council Tuesday night voted to join cities across California and declare itself a "sanctuary" to protect undocumented residents against threats from President-elect Donald Trump to deport them.

But right after the vote was taken, council members had to reckon with the fact that it’s not easy being a sanctuary city when you depend on income directly from immigration enforcement.

The council had two items on the agenda for its Tuesday night city council meeting that had people packed into the chambers and standing in line outside for hours. The first was the resolution declaring Santa Ana a sanctuary city.

The second was a resolution to limit the city’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to use the city jail to detain immigrants. Santa Ana has contracted with ICE for use of the jail since 2006, and currently nearly half of inmates at the jail are under ICE custody.

The contract is set to expire in 2020. But during the meeting, dozens of residents spoke in favor of canceling the city’s contract as soon as possible.

“Let’s be clear, a city with ICE in its jail is not a sanctuary, so that’s a good place to start," said Salvador Sarmiento with the National Day Labor Organizing Network.

The Santa Ana City Council voted in May to phase out the ICE contract. Then, immediately after Donald Trump got elected, the council indicated that it wanted to end the contract even sooner. But fiscal reality seems to have set in.

The city depends on the income from that contract — ICE pays $105 per day for each detainee — to pay off its $24 million debt on the jail.

City Manager David Cavazos said terminating the ICE contract completely would cost the city about $2 million each year, or two-thirds of the city’s annual jail debt payment.

Santa Ana did vote Tuesday to reduce the number of ICE inmates to a maximum of 128 and to begin studying alternative revenue streams to take the place of the immigrant detention contract. Currently, the contract has no inmate cap.

Immigrant advocate Roberto Herrera said he was happy about the council's resolution declaring Santa Ana an immigrant sanctuary city. He called the vote to phase out the ICE contract a half win.

“We’re still going to continue to follow up and show up to make sure that ICE contract is ended in a timely manner," Herrera said.

Santa Ana is the latest city to thrust itself into the looming showdown between President-elect Trump's administration and sanctuary cities, whose federal funding Trump has vowed to cut.

But while those tensions continue to brew, there's just one complicating factor: There's no official definition of what a sanctuary city is.

That means there’s no official count for how many sanctuary cities there may be across the country, and actual policies can vary widely from place to place. In some locations, "sanctuary" might mean city officials refrain from asking residents about their immigration status. In other places, it means that local law enforcement won’t hold and turn over detained immigrants at the request of ICE — known as a "detainer."

Using only the detainer policy as a measure, all counties across the state could be considered sanctuary counties to some degree: California signed the Trust Act in 2013, which limits counties’ cooperation with ICE detainers for immigrants booked for minor offenses.

Additionally, if a city doesn't officially proclaim itself a sanctuary city, it may be considered one in practice based on the policies it's enforcing. Some say they don't comply with ICE detainers not for political reasons, but simply to avoid lawsuits.

Or a municipality could designate itself a sanctuary city and not enforce any new measures at all.

With all that in mind, here's a sampling of other cities and counties around Southern California and where they stand on so-called sanctuary policies:

Los Angeles

Mayor Eric Garcetti has actually avoided describing L.A. as a sanctuary city, saying the term is “ill-defined.” Nevertheless, the city is considered to have some of the most immigrant-friendly policies in the country.

In 1979, the LAPD became the first police department in the nation to operate under a directive prohibiting officers from initiating any action against a person with the intent of uncovering their immigration status. Under that same order, officers are also not allowed to arrest or book anyone for illegal entry into the United States.

In 2014, the LAPD declared it would not honor any of ICE’s “detainer” requests without a judge’s order or other legal requirement.

Following the presidential election, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck also reiterated that the department would not be in the business of enforcing federal immigration policy. “I depend on [undocumented immigrants] for support, I depend on them to be witnesses to crime, I depend on them to report crime, I depend on them to support the police department,” he told KPCC’s AirTalk. “And none of that is as likely to happen if we become an arm of immigration enforcement.”

Long Beach

Long Beach has not officially labeled itself a sanctuary city, but Mayor Robert Garcia and other city leaders have openly expressed support for immigrant and undocumented communities. Earlier this year, after a CSU Long Beach police officer turned over immigrant Jose Alvarez to be deported for a 21-year-old nonviolent drug conviction, five Long Beach City Council members voted to support a resolution asking the federal government to grant humanitarian parole to bring Alvarez back.

Long Beach police have complied with California’s Trust Act, and generally refrain from holding immigrants past their release dates unless there are judicial orders or other special conditions that warrant holding them for a longer period of time.


Following the 2016 presidential election, Police Chief Sergio Diaz declared that Riverside police would not play a part in enforcing any potential mass deportations undertaken under Trump’s administration. “Our policy is we are not immigration agents. We’re in the crime business,” he said, according to the Press-Enterprise.

San Bernardino County

San Bernardino has made no proclamations identifying itself as a sanctuary county. Nevertheless, some immigration organizations, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for more restrictive immigration policies, have included the county on its lists of sanctuary cities and counties because the sheriff’s department has declined to comply with ICE detainer requests.

But the sheriff’s department didn’t necessarily make that policy decision based on protecting undocumented immigrants. The department told the Press-Enterprise in 2014 that officials were concerned about possibly being sued over those detainers, after a 2014 ruling in a federal district court found that an Oregon county violated a woman’s Fourth Amendment rights by holding her past her release date and without probable cause.