HANFORD – Say the phrase "sanctuary city for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally" and you're bound to get some interesting responses in Kings County.

Many larger California cities have already declared themselves a sanctuary city, which means that officials in those cities, including law enforcement officials, have vowed not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in deportation proceedings.

Now there's a proposal on the table to give the whole state of California a sanctuary designation to prevent what state legislators fear will happen – mass deportations ordered by officials in the administration of President Donald Trump.

In addition to expressing a general desire to crack down harder on illegal immigration than his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump has threatened punitive action against sanctuary cities in California, including potentially cutting off federal funding to those cities.

The issue is drawing different responses from local school administrators, church officials and agriculture industry representatives.

Some school districts in California have declared themselves to be sanctuaries for children and parents who are undocumented.

Todd Barlow, superintendent of Kit Carson Unified School District, said the designation is unnecessary because state law already prohibits school personnel from inquiring about the immigration status of students and parents or reporting such information to authorities.

"I'll tell you what, the fact of the matter is, by virtue of federal and state law, all public schools are sanctuary schools," he said. "That means there is a limited amount of information we can share with immigration authorities. We cannot and don't report the immigration status of our parents and students to authorities."

Barlow said that if some districts are opting for an official sanctuary designation, they're "probably doing it to lessen the fears of their children and families, and they want them to feel safe."

He also wonders if some are doing it to "politicize the issue."

"We don't feel the need to take a political stand," Barlow said. "We're just going to comply with state and federal law."

Barlow said the law would have to be altered to change the status quo.

"They would have to go through the legislative process and force it on us," he said.

"As far as the legal aspect of it is concerned, I don't think schools can or should focus on immigration status questions that fall outside their jurisdiction," he said. "We should focus on education."

He doesn't expect authorities to start going after school kids and families.

"It seems like such an implausible thing, I haven't gone down that road in my mind," he said.

For two Roman Catholic priests in Hanford – the Rev. Mike Lastiri at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church and the Rev. Michael Moore at St. Brigid – the issue takes on particular resonance.

Both have a number of active parishioners who are undocumented. That's particularly true at Immaculate Heart, where a majority of parishioners are Hispanic.

Lastiri said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is working on a sanctuary statement.

"We have a long tradition of being sanctuaries," he said. "It is and it always has been that way, but maybe people don't know that."

Lastiri said the sanctuary designation wouldn't apply to immigrants wanted by authorities for crimes committed after arriving in the country illegally.

"We need to make a differentiation there," he said.

"It will be interesting to see how the political situation develops in the months to come," Lastiri said.

"If they started deporting people who are law-abiding citizens who are just here to work, I would oppose it," Moore said.

Moore said he has written letters of support for undocumented parishioners who are trying to legitimize their status.

"They need letters from people who know them," he said. "They've been living here. They're good people."

"Traditionally, in European history, churches were always sanctuaries," he said. "People fleeing violence or a feud, they could always take refuge in a church. To me, churches are sanctuaries right now."

Manuel Cunha, president of Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, fears that if Trump pursues a hardline deportation policy in California, it would hurt agriculture.

Cunha fears that California employers in industries such as agriculture that hire a large number of undocumented workers will be required to participate in E-Verify, a federal program that allows businesses to check whether job applicants are legally eligible to work in the U.S.

Cunha said that participation in the program is currently voluntary. 

Many employers in immigrant-heavy industries don't participate.

Cunha is against the idea of sanctuary cities because he thinks it could be used to shield people who come to the U.S. illegally and then commit serious crimes while they're here.

"To say you're going to have this, says you support criminals in our community," he said.

Cunha is afraid that could anger Trump and cause him to engage in punitive action against immigrants and employers statewide.

"If the president of this country says every state will do E-Verify, then you will do it," Cunha said.

Cunha said that mandatory E-Verify could open up employers to prosecution. Under federal law, it's a crime to hire workers you know aren't legally eligible to work in the U.S.

Cunha said mandatory E-Verify would wreak "devastation on some industries."

Cunha said he's going to try to get his position heard in the White House.

"I can't guess what [Trump's] going to do," he said. "But I do know this: I'm going to meet with some friends, and we're going to meet ... with [Trump's] top key staff over the next couple of weeks."

The reporter can be reached at snidever@hanfordsentinel.com or 583-2432. 

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