The Berkeley City Council will consider amendments to its sanctuary city resolution July 25. Photo: Lance Knobel

With sanctuary cities in the spotlight since President Donald Trump was elected on a promise to crack down on immigration, there have been questions as to what, exactly, “sanctuary” means and how local governments can provide it. An item on the agenda at the Berkeley City Council meeting tonight, July 25, lays out specific protocols for the city’s engagement with federal immigration officers, further restricting contact.

The item amends Berkeley’s existing policy to clarify what city employees should do if a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent shows up in a public building or asks for information about residents. If the amendments are passed, employees would be instructed not to respond to any requests from ICE officers, or to direct them to top officials, unless agents have a judicial warrant.

The proposed amendment is one of the early outputs from a sanctuary city task force convened by Mayor Jesse Arreguín at the beginning of the year. The mayor assembled the group — comprised of city, school district and higher education representatives, along with community organizations — amid threats from Trump to defund sanctuary cities.

“While the existing City of Refuge policy states that no city resources or employees are to enforce federal immigration law, many questions have arisen in the task force about what to do when ICE officials visit city offices to ask questions or to make arrests,” says the council item, sponsored by Arreguín, and Councilwomen Sophie Hahn, Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison.

Because Berkeley already prohibits anyone who would disrupt city operations from entering city facilities, requests from ICE agents to enter any building must first be reviewed by the site director and the city attorney, the proposed amendment says.

Unless the federal officials have a judicial warrant, city staff are not required to respond to other warrants or subpoenas or to speak with any ICE agents, the amendment says. If federal officers try to talk to any city employees, the staff must forward the request to their director, and refuse to comply with any warrantless searches of city facilities or records. If ICE does have a warrant from a judge, the city must comply.

Officials at a press conference on Berkeley’s sanctuary city status on Nov. 22, 2016. Photo: Tracey Taylor. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Officials at a press conference on Berkeley’s sanctuary city status on Nov. 22, 2016. Photo: Tracey Taylor. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The proposed amendment also says the city will distribute a list of local immigrant service organizations at city offices and directs city staff to refer residents “with questions regarding their immigration status” to those groups instead of to public agencies.

The goal of the amendment, which is on the consent calendar — a set of items that can be approved at once — is to make “explicit our commitment to providing protections for all of our community members to the furthest extent of the law,” the item says.

Berkeley officials first passed a sanctuary resolution in 1971, at that point directed at shielding Vietnam War draft resisters from federal punishment. Shortly after, the city vowed to protect refugees and immigrants, and the council has reaffirmed the sanctuary status multiple times since, including just after the election. The Berkeley School Board adopted a policy protecting undocumented students in December 2016 as well.

Berkeley stands to lose up to $11.5 million in federal funds if Trump follows through on his threat to withhold funding from sanctuary cities, but some local jurisdictions, including San Francisco and Santa Clara County, have already presented legal challenges to his orders.

Berkeley is not the only Bay Area government taking a new look at its policies to protect undocumented immigrants. Oakland recently rescinded an agreement allowing police officers to collaborate with ICE on task forces.

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern recently participated in a town hall to respond to concerns about his office’s interactions with ICE. While the county does not arrest people based on their immigration status, authorities do provide the federal government with information about undocumented immigrants in custody, including their expected release dates.

As of May, there had been no confirmed reports of ICE agents in Berkeley since the election, said Prerna Lal, an immigration attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center. But they have shown up in the past, including to arrest a family in their home near Berkeley High School in 2008. BHS students walked out of class and locked hands in a circle around the school in protest of the arrest.

Berkeley officials remember the event well and want to prepare for the possibility of a similar occurrence, said Brandi Campbell, Arreguín’s chief of staff.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...