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In his tumultuous first days in office, President Donald Trump has signed a slew of executive orders on immigration, fulfilling some of his most extreme campaign promises that were the centerpiece of his run for the White House.
So far, two of Trump’s orders — paving the way for the construction of a border wall and issuing a travel ban — have provoked a furious backlash, deepening a diplomatic rift with Mexico and sparking nationwide protests, including here in Honolulu.
But what’s likely the most consequential for Hawaii is a Jan. 25 order, which essentially deputizes local law enforcement officers as federal agents, authorizing them “to perform the functions of immigration officers in relation to the investigation, apprehension or detention of aliens in the United States.”
Trump’s order escalated his ongoing feud with hundreds of communities across the country that have declared themselves as a “sanctuary” — a politically potent, if mostly symbolic, designation aimed at expressing solidarity and granting protection to undocumented immigrants.
In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh pledged outright defiance, saying he’d use all city resources to protect its immigrants, “even if that means using City Hall itself as a last resort.”
On Tuesday, San Francisco even sued the Trump administration, asserting that the president’s vow to crack down on “sanctuary jurisdictions” amounted to a violation of the Constitution’s states’ rights provisions.
In Hawaii, however, no local community — or the state as a whole — has moved to join the sanctuary movement, even though as many as 21,000 undocumented immigrants are estimated to live in the islands.
Efforts are underway to change that.
At the state level, state Rep. Kaniela Ing says he’ll soon introduce a resolution calling for Hawaii to officially declare itself as a sanctuary. In Honolulu, Hawaii J20, a local group formed in response to Trump’s rise to power, is pushing Mayor Kirk Caldwell to do the same for the city.
But it’s unclear whether immigrant advocates can muster enough political support for the efforts — given that Trump is threatening to withhold what amounts to hundreds of millions, if not billions, in federal funds to punish jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate.
And neither Gov. David Ige nor Caldwell has made any public statement in support of the sanctuary movement; they both declined Civil Beat’s request for comment.
Still, Ing says he won’t back down, saying Hawaii should stand up for its values.
“Some people keep beating the drums of xenophobia, so we need to counter that,” Ing said. “We’re a state with a rich immigrant history. We should be a place of compassion without fear and hate-mongering that appeal to our nativist, nationalist tendencies.”
In a legal sense, the term “sanctuary” has no set definition, and Trump’s order doesn’t make it any clearer — defining it only as “jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable federal law.”
But the term, in general, is used to refer to cities, counties and states that have placed limits — formally or informally — on the use of local law enforcement resources for enforcing federal immigration laws.
In some jurisdictions, that means police officers are forbidden to ask anyone they encounter — suspects, victims or witnesses — about their immigration status.
In others, local prisons and jails are instructed to defy “detainers” issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — unless the request is accompanied by a court-issued warrant.
The thinking is, the practices will help maintain the trust between local law enforcement agencies and undocumented immigrants, encouraging them to come out of the shadows if they are victims of, or witnesses to, a crime.
“The issue of sanctuary cities is really about disentangling local policing from federal immigration enforcement,” said Khara Jabola, former director of the Hawaii Coalition for Immigrant Rights. “At the very core, having those two wedded is extremely dangerous for the whole population. How the hell do you police a city or community that won’t even talk to you?”
“Some people keep beating the drums of xenophobia, so we need to counter that.” — State Rep. Kaniela Ing
According to an estimate by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., more than 500 jurisdictions across the country have such practices in place.
But not in Hawaii: The state sheriff’s office and county police departments voluntarily work with ICE on a routine basis to enforce federal immigration laws.
According to Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, the sheriff’s office notifies ICE when deputies encounter undocumented immigrants and, upon request, hold them in custody.
Schwartz says the department, which operates the state’s eight prisons and jails, also honors ICE’s detainers, even though some federal courts have ruled that holding undocumented immigrants in custody without a warrant is a violation of their civil rights.
According to spokeswoman Michelle Yu, the Honolulu Police Department has a similar practice of notifying ICE “when immigration violations are suspected.”
Hawaii Republican Party Chair Fritz Rohlfing says that, given the possible financial fallout, local law enforcement agencies in Hawaii are better off keeping the current policies in place.
“Hawaii is very dependent on the federal government for a large part of its economy, and we don’t have the same resilience like perhaps California does economically,” Rohlfing said. “So we shouldn’t be putting ourselves at a greater risk from a sanction that the federal government can impose on the state or the city.”
But state Sen. Karl Rhoads, vice chair of the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, says the stakes are too high for Hawaii to give in to Trump’s threat so easily.
“We’re at the point in history where we’d have to stand up and be counted. If there’s some monetary loss to ourselves because of it, so be it,” Rhoads said.
“But is the federal government really going to withdraw funding for things like homelessness prevention, because they’re mad at us for becoming a sanctuary?” Rhoads said. “If they’re that petty, then we’re just going to be at odds, no matter what.”
Meanwhile, Mateo Caballero, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, points out that sanctuary jurisdictions have some potent legal weapons to counter the threat of large funding cuts.
In a more recent case, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the high court rejected parts of the Affordable Care Act, ruling that the federal government couldn’t take Medicaid funds hostage to “coerce” states into cooperating.
The takeaway, Caballero says, is that, “You’re supposed to respect the state government. You cannot just use them as an arm of the federal government.”
“How the hell do you police a city or community that won’t even talk to you?” — Khara Jabola, former director of the Hawaii Coalition for Immigrant Rights
But some immigrant advocates say the funding issue isn’t the only obstacle that the sanctuary movement has to overcome in Hawaii.
April Bautista, co-founder of the Aloha DREAM Team, says building support for any pro-immigrant policies in Hawaii tends to be difficult because, unlike other progressive states like California, the state has always been ambivalent about the issue of illegal immigration.
The issue, Bautista says, is divisive even within the immigrant community.
“You tend to see that good-immigrant, bad-immigrant dynamic,” Bautista said. “Some people would just say, ‘I came here the right way. Why can’t other people do the same?'”
Erendira Aldana, a doctoral student at the University of Hawaii, chalks up the dynamic to the harsh political rhetoric that surrounds the issue.
“The rhetoric has been very negative and stigmatizing, so no one wants to be associated with that, and no one wants to take up the challenge of fixing the immigration issue,” said Aldana, who helped organize a petition calling for the university to be a “sanctuary campus.”
“It’s easier to pretend that it doesn’t concern them,” Aldana said.
But the Trump presidency appears to have given a renewed urgency for some in Hawaii to mobilize in support of immigrants.
On Friday, Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin filed a federal lawsuit against Trump’s travel ban, saying it “degrades the values that Hawaii has worked so hard to protect by subjecting a specific set of its residents to discrimination and second-class treatment.”
And the Rev. Stan Bain, who helped found Honolulu-based Faith Action for Community Equity, says 12 congregations have so far expressed interest in taking in undocumented immigrants to protect them from deportation — a reprise of the original sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when churches across the country provided shelter to asylum-seekers fleeing civil war in Central America.
Jabola says such move is what’s needed as part of an all-hands-on-deck response to the threat posed by the Trump administration.
“The idea is to put in place as many barriers as possible, even if they will be pre-empted at some point — to just slow any type of crackdown,” Jabola said.