Politics & Government

Vulnerable CA Republicans not fully on board with Trump's sanctuary state attacks

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with California leaders and public officials who oppose California's sanctuary policies in the Cabinet Room of the White House May 16, 2018 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with California leaders and public officials who oppose California's sanctuary policies in the Cabinet Room of the White House May 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump repeatedly, emphatically told California officials this week that attacking the state's sanctuary policies would benefit them politically.

Not all of California's Republicans facing tough reelection battles in 2018 seem convinced.

While the state's congressional Republicans do routinely condemn local sanctuary policies, several declined to align themselves with the White House's hardcore stance — which includes penalizing sanctuary cities and states.

So-called sanctuary jurisdictions are those accused of directing their law enforcement officers to not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents when they detain people who are in the country illegally.

California Republican Reps. David Valadao, Jeff Denham and Darrell Issa (who is not running for reelection) all condemned sanctuary city policies and liberal California officials in comments to McClatchy on Friday.

But they hedged when asked if they supported the administration's efforts to punish those cities. Among the punishments: Withholding federal grants to law enforcement and suing the state of California over its sanctuary laws.

All three congressmen represent districts won by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

"Law enforcement has to have the ability to go after these bad actors and people who are a threat to our communities," Valadao said, adding that the violent MS-13 gang is a significant problem in his district.

"I support the administration going after folks who are here to cause harm, where that makes sense," he said, "but I also want to make sure we do reform our immigration system."

Denham, who has been leading efforts to push for a vote on immigration reform in the House, had a similar take.

"I believe in following the rule of law and making sure that our communities are safe, and our local law enforcement should be working with all levels of law enforcement, which our sheriff does," Denham said, pointing out his sheriff, Adam Christianson of Stanislaus County, was sitting next to Trump in the meeting.

Local invitees to Trump's televised May 16 meeting on sanctuary state policies included Christianson, El Dorado County Sheriff John D’Agostini and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims.

D’Agostini suggested to the president that California politicians enacted sanctuary laws to score political points. “Well, Sheriff, I'll tell you what — it's not bad politics anymore,” Trump replied. “I think, maybe, more than any place else right now, there's a revolution going on in California. They want safety.”

At another point, he told the local leaders, many of whom represent cities and counties that have voted to join the administration's lawsuit against California, that “it's becoming quite popular what you're doing.”

Denham declined to say if he supported penalties on sanctuary jurisdictions, instead saying that federal dollars should directly flow to counties following federal law rather than going through a state government flouting it.

"If you have a sheriff that is working with all levels of government, then they shouldn't be put in jeopardy of losing law enforcement dollars when following the law," he said.

Issa's advice to his embattled colleagues was to emphasize that "law enforcement is being hampered by criminal aliens knowingly being released."

The congressman would not say that he supported the Trump administration's efforts to penalize sanctuary cities, but did say it was inappropriate for jurisdictions to receive federal grants if local governments were not properly fighting MS-13.

Not all of the state's vulnerable Republicans were so uneasy about punishing local jurisdictions.

Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Calif., who represents an Orange County district that Clinton won in 2016, said she was in full agreement with the Trump administration's moves.

"I support the administration 100 percent on this," Walters said.

"The number one job of government is to protect people," she explained, and it isn't doing its job well if it shelters people in the country illegally who are committing crimes.

Orange County has been at the epicenter of the local resistance to the sanctuary law. The county's board of supervisors and a number of its cities have voted to join the administration's lawsuit over three state laws that limit local law enforcement’s ability to communicate with federal immigration officials. A number of the mayors and other officials who attended the White House roundtable came from the county.

Walters' district also has a smaller Latino population than those represented by the Central Valley Republicans— 22 percent compared to 45 percent for Denham and 76 percent for Valadao, according to the Pew Research Center.

A handful of Republicans running in the two hotly contested open seats in San Diego and Orange County have also embraced the president's tough line on sanctuary policies.

San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar attended the White House meeting and suggested California's laws — and Gov. Jerry Brown, in particular — were to blame for rising crime.

"Governor Brown makes San Diego a great place to commit a crime because you have options. You can either be across the border in a matter of minutes and shielded by Mexico, or you have the option of simply staying put, shielded by Governor Moonbeam," she said.

California Republicans in less competitive districts have also been vocal in their support for the Trump administration's actions. Reps. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., and Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., both lauded local officials who attended the White House roundtable and savaged California's sanctuary laws.

“President Trump highlighted the problems caused by California’s outrageous sanctuary state policies today by hearing directly from Californians, including our El Dorado County Sheriff John D’Agostini, about the threat to public safety these policies pose to Californians," McClintock said in a press release.

Jim Brulte, California Republican Party chairman, said the politics of sanctuary lawsdepends on the districts.

"In some districts, particularly in the Bay Area, it's very popular," Brulte said. "And in other districts, particularly Orange County, it's very unpopular."

The White House clearly sees political benefit to continuing to highlight the conflict. Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen all came to California in recent months and publicly attacked the state’s sanctuary laws.

Trump's entire roundtable was broadcast live, featuring extensive comments from 16 local California officials who have been openly critical of the state’s policies, as well as Bakersfield-area Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, and other administration officials.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby