steinberg sits on stage speaking, gesturing with an outstretched arm and index finger
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg speaking May 1, 2017 at the Religious Action Center's Consultation on Conscience in Washington, DC. (Photo/Courtesy Religious Action Center)

Sacto mayor brings pro-immigrant message to D.C. Reform confab

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg took his pro-immigrant policies onto a national stage this week, telling delegates at a conference of Reform Jews that he’ll continue to oppose Trump administration efforts to penalize sanctuary cities.

Sacramento, along with cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, limits its cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Such so-called sanctuary cities refuse to turn over undocumented immigrants from local jails in certain circumstances.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order in January threatening to withhold funds from such cities if they refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials. A U.S. district judge in San Francisco last week temporarily blocked that order, saying the president had no authority to sign such an order because only Congress could place such conditions on federal spending.

Steinberg, speaking May 1 in Washington, D.C., at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Consultation on Conscience, called Trump’s order unconstitutional and said he would never turn his back on undocumented immigrants because of a threat of federal funds being withheld.

“If they’re going to strip a federal grant from us, I guess that’s the price we pay,” he said. “Because in my city, I’m not trading civil rights for money. As an American Jew, I couldn’t do so.”

The mayor of California’s capital said local law enforcement officials don’t want to be forced into the position of becoming immigration police, and also argued that support for immigrants is morally correct.

“This is a matter of American values,” he told the delegates. “We do not exclude people who came to this country as undocumented immigrants, we don’t discriminate against hard-working families.”

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the RAC and senior vice president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said the focus on immigration helped swell attendance at this year’s Consultation on Conscience conference to a record 800 delegates — about 100 of whom came from California.

“The threat has increased. We were frustrated during the last eight years that there wasn’t immigration reform, but now it’s a crisis causing terror in the hearts of immigrants and communities,” Pesner told J. in an interview. “There’s a high level of energy right now to protect the most vulnerable.”

The RAC released a resolution in late March urging the approximately 900 Reform congregations around the nation to “protect undocumented immigrants facing deportation.” The RAC also offered training webinars to congregations, Pesner said.

Though the current campaign is pegged in large part to the Trump administration’s threats, Pesner said, “This is not some modern political agenda, it’s as ancient as Leviticus.

“This is a Jewish issue, it’s a faith issue, it’s an American issue,” he said. “We’re doing this under our abiding Jewish values.”

Steinberg, who was on a panel with former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, told delegates the key to success on social justice issues is to present emotional and intellectual arguments to support a specific cause.

“If you want to be effective, it is important to focus. There are so many ways to heal the world, and so many ills in the world, so we have a choice on what to focus on,” said Steinberg, 57, who became Sacramento’s mayor in December after 14 years in the state Legislature.

“There is a place in politics for righteous indignation, but it’s a matter of combining the heart and the head,” he added. “Why aren’t we making an argument that immigration is essential for the business community in our modern economy?”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.