a man holds a sign: "Return our neighbors to their families
Attendees of a rally a Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael in support of detained undocumented men Hugo Mejia and Rodrigo Nunez, May 2017 (Screenshot/ABC 7 News)

Give undocumented immigrants sanctuary in California — support SB 54

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Gov. Jerry Brown, with his Jesuit upbringing, has long governed with mercy and forgiveness. With the four-term governor preparing to retire next year, I am hoping he bolsters his legacy by signing Senate Bill 54. Known as the California Values Act, the bill is being supported by a long list of elected officials, members of faith communities and community organizations.

I am an immigrant Jew from Eastern Europe, and my life and my community’s history are lessons in the benefits of welcoming immigrants with respect — and the dangers of turning them away.

Introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, SB 54 would prohibit local police forces from helping federal authorities deport people who are in the U.S. illegally. It would also make public schools, hospitals and courthouses safe havens for California residents, regardless of immigration status. Passed in April by the state Senate, the bill is coming up for an Assembly vote any day.

“[The] worst thing we want to do is, in fact, have police officers leave their beats, leave the communities that they are sworn to protect and serve to go on and assist [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] federal agents — to set up a perimeter around an elementary school to wait for mothers to pick up their children,” de León said.

As SB 54 continues to pick up support from all corners of the state — recently garnering the unanimous endorsement of the California Democratic Party — one major interest group has attempted to weaken it: California’s sheriffs.

The sheriff departments in Kings County and Orange County both say they oppose SB 54, in part, because of money: They fear the Trump administration will withdraw funding for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program if California becomes a sanctuary state.

Aside from the questionable constitutionality of using law enforcement funding to blackmail jurisdictions, SCAAP has been marred by a long history of falsely criminalizing innocent residents.  In 2012, the state auditor submitted a report that almost 2,000 flawed alien records were submitted through SCAAP.

Not all law enforcement officers oppose the bill.

Many cite the American Immigration Council, which found that while immigration rates have increased, crime has declined, and immigrant men ages 18 to 39 are less likely to be incarcerated than their U.S.-born counterparts.

My family left the Soviet Union so that here in America I could avail myself of opportunities that were denied there to Jews.

A 2017 study by the Center for American Progress found that sanctuary counties — which do not assist federal immigration enforcement officials — have less crime and poverty, and a higher median household income, than nonsanctuary counterparts.

Weakening or vetoing the SB 54 will chill community members’ willingness to report crimes and thus stifle the progress in public safety that they have helped achieve. At a press conference last December, San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia said, “We will not do anything to violate that trust” built with members of the local community. “Without cooperation, we would be ineffective as a department.”

While the influence of money on public policy and public safety considerations are crucial factors, I hope that the governor’s decision is ultimately based on California’s values.

As an immigrant myself, this is personal to me. My family left the Soviet Union so that here in America I could avail myself of opportunities that were denied there to Jews. Merely associating with a rich Jewish tradition meant that many universities, majors and workplaces were off-limits, and Jews were at a heightened risk of hate crimes.

I am certain that I would have been unable to attend my alma mater, pursue the engineering profession to help solve society’s complex problems or serve in public office had U.S. policies not embraced my family.

But as the collective trauma of the Holocaust is deeply enshrined in our minds, so is the shameful decision of this nation’s leaders in 1939 to turn away the MS St. Louis, a ship of 900 Jews attempting to disembark in an American port; 254 of them later perished in World War II.

If SB 54 fails, the preponderance of immigrants who would be at significant risk of deportation are people who live crime-free, industrious lives. They simply had the audacity to flee bleak situations in their home countries and, often, threats by gangs and militias. Many have called the United States home for far longer than I have been here.

Signing SB 54 would cement the governor’s legacy of compassion. It would grant to thousands of California’s residents the promise of a fruitful future — just like the one that has been granted to me. And it would ensure that our neighbors, friends, home care workers, nurses, small business owners, colleagues and classmates are less at risk of facing a fate similar to the one that befell the would-be Jewish refugees of the MS St. Louis.

Please call Gov. Brown today at (916) 445-2841 and urge him to sign SB 54 as written.

Igor Tregub
Igor Tregub

Igor Tregub is an immigrant, an elected member of the Berkeley Rent Board and a leader with Bend the Arc Jewish Action.