I took a photograph years ago of downtown Santa Ana for a magazine article I had written about the city. When I raised the camera to my eye, people ran for cover. I was later harangued by a stranger. In retrospect, it’s not hard to explain the reaction.

Orange County has more than 300,000 unauthorized immigrants, many of them living in the county seat. It’s understandable that people living here illegally fear the roving eye of immigration authorities.

This puts into context the Santa Ana City Council’s decision to declare itself a “sanctuary city.” It’s good politics, even though the term is imprecise. There are approximately 300 cities and counties across the country that have adopted some type of sanctuary policy, but the specifics vary so much it’s hard to define exactly what constitutes such a city.

They include San Francisco, where law-enforcement do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities in many situations. San Francisco embraced this term in the 1980s, and increased its sanctuary protections in 2013, adopting the “Due Process for All” ordinance. Since then, police have been forbidden from retaining immigrants with the express purpose to hand them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they are eligible for release and have no record of violent felonies.

As the San Jose Mercury News noted, sanctuary policy reached national visibility after “a Mexican national who had been deported five times was arrested in the shooting death of Kate Steinle, fueling (Donald) Trump’s hard line on immigration just as his campaign for president took off.”

These are controversial yet substantive policies. Santa Ana, however, is on the other end of the spectrum. The council’s 5-0 vote makes it the first in the county to adopt a sanctuary resolution. But the resolution remains symbolic, more of a rhetorical shot at the incoming Trump administration than an actual policy that will benefit residents of Orange County’s second-largest city.

As the resolution explains, Santa Ana wants to “demonstrate its commitment to its residents by unequivocally stating that it will provide a sanctuary to all residents who are fearful by assuring them that the city will not expend any funds, nor use its resources, including staff, to administer federal immigration law which is the exclusive authority of the federal government.”

A number of activists complained the ordinance is toothless. But the council also unanimously approved the first step in a plan to reduce the number of jail beds available to federal immigration authorities. This could cost the city $663,000 a year — ballooning to more than $2 million if the council ultimately ends the entire contract.

No matter what one thinks about the nation’s immigration policies, it would be crazy to end a jail contract that brings in significant revenue and funds myriad public services, including those that help immigrants living here. That would be a costly way to make a political point. The sanctuary resolution doesn’t help anyone, either. It won’t satisfy community activists.

I have little patience for the politics of symbolism.

Those more substantive sanctuary policies embraced by San Francisco do have real consequences. I’m sympathetic to some of the goals. For instance, if unauthorized immigrants fear deportation from any dealings with the police, they are unlikely to report crimes. That’s a true public-safety problem.

But many of these policies create lawlessness. There’s an enormous public safety problem if cities allow dangerous people to roam the streets as a way to thumb their nose at federal policies. I dislike Trump’s immigration stances, also, but it is wiser for local officials to deal strategically with the situation as it unfolds.

Venting never makes good policy, yet the silliness is spreading. On the first day of session Monday, the Legislature approved resolutions blasting Trump. “Californians do not need healing. We need to fight,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

Oh, please.

There will be opportunity for the state to fight the feds, but such bravado isn’t going to change the incoming administration and certainly will embolden immigration hard-liners.

I’ve been impressed with the approach enunciated by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “We cooperate all the time with federal immigration officials when there are criminals that are in our midst and need to be deported,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “With that said, we’re a very welcoming city, where our law enforcement officers and LAPD don’t go around asking people for their papers, nor should they.”

Indeed, cities shouldn’t create unnecessary fear — something I understand better after my Santa Ana picture-taking episode. But instead of expressing anger, Santa Ana officials ought to take a deep breath and foster policies that are welcoming, yet in the best interests of the city’s budget and the public’s safety.

Image by esfera

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