Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, in an effort to calm concerns about his recent statement that Fresno won’t call itself a sanctuary city for refugees and undocumented immigrants, said Thursday that “the only difference between Fresno and other cities who label themselves as sanctuary cities are only words with no clear definition.”
Brand, along with police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno Council Members Esmeralda Soria and Oliver Baines, spoke to the media after meeting with leaders of the Latino, African-American and Muslim communities. The police department will continue to follow its policy to “enforce the law without regard to immigrant status, not to enforce immigration law,” Brand said.
“This policy has been in place for 15 years, and it will stay in place for as long as I am the mayor,” he added.
Brand and Dyer both said the definition of a sanctuary city is unclear, and any definitions used by cities nationwide are inconsistent. However, Brand said he didn’t want to “mince words” over the label of a sanctuary city, adding that the city’s policies will not change.
At a Jan. 25 meeting with The Fresno Bee’s editorial board, Brand said he didn’t want to jeopardize federal funds for public works projects the city needs with a sanctuary city declaration. Brand said he was stuck between a Democratic governor and a Republican president, and needed to take a neutral stance to maintain a good relationship with both.
“I’m not going to make Fresno a sanctuary city because I don’t want to make Fresno ineligible from receiving potentially millions of dollars in infrastructure and other types of projects,” he told The Bee. “My philosophy is to follow the law and to avoid these national culture-war questions.”
On Thursday, Brand said he had heard from residents concerned about his statements, and that he “listened with the heart and with my head.” He said he would continue to govern Fresno based on what he believes is best for the city.
Brand added that he and his City Council colleagues unanimously voted in December 2015 to ask Congress and then-President Barack Obama “to act without haste to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
“I renew that call today,” he said. “We need to act, to take all this energy that’s out there on both sides and put it constructively toward immigration reform.”
Dyer said law enforcement depends on residents trusting police officers. “We don’t want to do anything to violate that trust, regardless of immigration status,” he said. The police chief echoed Brand’s words from last month, saying his department is caught between federal and state governments. That said, he reiterated “the role of police is to protect and serve everybody, documented or not.”
“The last thing we need is the burden of enforcing immigration laws,” Dyer said. “We already have our hands full.”
Soria said more than two dozen community leaders had talked to Brand about the “dangers and benefits” of sanctuary status.
“Nothing has changed,” Soria said. “We will continue to roll out the welcome mat to immigrants.”
Baines thanked the mayor for being inclusive in his decisions surrounding the issue. He wanted to assure people that “no agent of this city” will arrest someone based only on residency or immigration status.
Ariana Martinez Lott, one of the organizers of a demonstration that attracted about 200 people to City Hall last week to protest Brand’s comments, said that she believes Fresno should declare itself a sanctuary city. For undocumented Latino families that she knows in Fresno, “the fear and the pain is too real,” she said. “It’s not even about a public debate anymore; it’s about people’s lives.”
While Martinez Lott praised the police department’s policy, “we cannot hold to a policy that is 15 years old; it’s outdated,” she added.
“Whether or not you want to call Fresno a sanctuary city – and I am in no way advocating that we don’t – there are certain things that one can set into place to create layers of protection for the undocumented community,” Martinez Lott said, noting that some cities underwrite health clinics or provide resources or funding for legal representation for undocumented immigrants.
Sukaina Hussain, a community organizer with Faith in Fresno, was pleased with the city’s show of solidarity, but added that concerns remain.
“It was made very clear, and we’re thankful, that the police department will not be looking to documentation status when they’re interacting with citizens, and we hope that continues to be enforced,” Hussain said.
Faith in Fresno hopes the city will establish a policy forbidding any city department from sharing private data with the federal Immigration & Customs Enforcement agency. Actions and policies, she said, “are more important to us than that specific name” of a sanctuary city.
“We’d be more interested in seeing an Office of Immigrant Affairs that provides not just a pathway to citizenship, but that there’s actual investment of city resources into opportunities for integration of undocumented refugees,” Hussain said. “We’re not particularly hung up on the name; we’re just hoping the city stand with the community regardless of what’s to come ahead” from the Trump administration.
But another Faith in Fresno leader, Andy Levine, said there is more than just semantics behind a sanctuary brand.
“We want to make sure that every step and every protection is taken for folks who are feeling this particular threat,” Levine said.
“There are some very specific things that some cities calling themselves sanctuaries have in place,” he added. “We don’t necessarily believe the argument that Fresno does all the same things that sanctuary cities do.”