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Is Fresno A Sanctuary City? It Depends On Who You Ask

Gage Skidmore
Wikimedia Commons

The early days of President Donald Trump’s administration have left all manner of people scrambling to keep up and understand the local impacts of a series of executive orders. One major change is the threat to withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities”, that is cities that claim to not work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find undocumented immigrants. But what even is a sanctuary city and is Fresno in the crosshairs?

When he explained his executive order targeting ‘sanctuary cities’ last week, President Trump described the order this way.

“We are going to get the bad ones out. The criminals, and the drug dealers, and the gangs and gang leaders. The day is over when they can stay in our country and wreak havoc,” Trump said.

The promise to do this involved a threat to cut off federal funding to cities that claim to be a safe zone for undocumented immigrants. A place where those without legal permission could reside and be free to contact their local police officer without fear that their immigration status will be questioned. In the most far-reaching cases, local police have pledged not to help ICE in any way at all.

"Our official policy is essentially the same as most of the sanctuary cities in California. We simply don't label ourselves a 'sanctuary city'," Mayor Lee Brand

Cities across the country have taken public steps to advertise this status and have colloquially become known as “sanctuary cities”.

But almost immediately following the signing of the order, cities began asking…’wait, is that us?’.

During an interview that aired on Valley Public Radio earlier today, Fresno Mayor Lee Brand says Fresno is not an official sanctuary city…but:

“Our official policy is essentially the same as most of the sanctuary cities in California. We simply don’t label ourselves a ‘sanctuary city’. Because by making that label, and that proposition, then the city itself is jeopardizing federal funding,” Brand says.

Brand says he is in a tight spot. Fresno badly needs federal funding. But he also needs to find a way balance the demands of being a city in a blue state facing a red administration.

Fresno Police Department policy 428 states that police should serve the public regardless of alien status and that quote “officers shall not enforce violations of immigration law/status”.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer defends the policy saying his officers are worried about criminal status, not immigration status. However, he says they do not actively stand in the way of ICE.

Dyer is not worried about the federal government pressing his officers into immigration patrols, which he fears could jeopardize relations with Fresno’s large Latino community.

"Is Trump going to take more of that right-leaning definition? Or is he going is he going to look at it more as it as a traditionally been seen?" Gregory Olson, immigration lawyer

“But the reality is, if that is truly the focus of the Trump administration to increase enforcement efforts against those individuals that are here and are undocumented? Then they need to hire more ICE agents and put them in local jurisdictions. But not require police departments to be the enforcement arm for them,” Dyer says.

While the city says it is not checking immigration status, that doesn’t mean checks aren’t being run. The Fresno County jail, which is run by Sheriff Margret Mims, does have ICE agents stationed inside to run immigration status checks.

Like Brand, Dyer is in in a bind. He needs the cooperation everyone, regardless of immigration status, to work with his officer to fight crime but also relies on federal funding to help execute the duties of what he considers to be an understaffed department.

So, Fresno leaders seem to believe that as long as they don’t call themselves a ‘sanctuary city’ they won’t run afoul of the Trump Administration even if their policies are functionally the same.

The question is, will the Trump administration see it that way?

San Joaquin College School of Law Professor Gregory Olson, who runs the New American Legal Clinic, says it’s unclear how the Administration will determine which cities are and are not ‘sanctuary’ because some conservative groups have taken a more hard-line view that lumps Fresno in with places like LA and San Francisco.

“So, it all depends on what the federal government is going to do now that it is under Trump’s power. Is Trump going to take more of that right-leaning definition? Or is he going is he going to look at it more as it as a traditionally been seen where a sanctuary city is designated and is taking those steps to prevent cooperation with ICE.” Olson says.

Ultimately, Olson says the vagueness from Washington has contributed to confusion on the ground in the Central Valley.

Today, the California Legislature even held a hearing to consider the possibility of declaring California a ‘sanctuary state’ including steps like prohibiting local police departments from spending money to enforce immigration laws.

But Olson points out that part of the issue is one of public perception.

If undocumented immigrants feel that the Fresno police are being pressed into service on behalf of ICE, even if it is not literally the case, then they may not be willing to come forward and report a crime or be a witness.

That is exactly the scenario police chief Dyer and Mayor Brand say they are trying to avoid.

Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.
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