ICE says sanctuary cities ‘not immune’ from law, but won’t confirm California operation

  • Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf holds a press conference in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, February 25, 2018, about information she learned about possible upcoming ICE raids in the Bay Area.

Photo: Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf holds a press conference in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, February 25, 2018, about information she learned about possible upcoming ICE raids in the Bay Area.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf holds a press conference in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, February 25, 2018, about information she learned about possible upcoming ICE raids in the Bay Area.

Photo: Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle

ICE won’t confirm reported California arrests; says sanctuary cities ‘not immune’

Federal officials said Monday that sanctuary cities and states are not “immune” from immigration enforcement, two days after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued an extraordinary warning that the agency was planning to arrest people in a large-scale Northern California operation.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, did not directly address Schaaf’s comments or reports that several immigrants were arrested Sunday in a handful of cities in the region, which appeared to corroborate Schaaf’s warning. The agency said only that its officers “conduct targeted enforcement operations on a daily basis.”

Schaaf said in a statement Saturday night that she had received confidential tips from “credible sources” who told her ICE was gearing up for a Bay Area operation starting as soon as the next day. The Chronicle reported in January that federal officials were planning a big Northern California operation designed to send a message that immigration policy will be enforced in the sanctuary state.

“While the vast majority of cities in America do cooperate with ICE, others force ICE to assign additional resources to conduct at-large arrests in the community, putting officers, the general public and the aliens at greater risk and increasing the incidence of collateral arrests,” James Schwab, a spokesman for ICE’s San Francisco office, said in a statement Monday. “Sanctuary cities and states are not immune from federal law.”

Supporters say sanctuary laws, which restrict cooperation between local government employees and immigration officers, seek to reassure undocumented immigrants that they can engage with local police as well as services such as education and health care without fear of deportation.

Schwab said ICE focuses its efforts on those “who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security” and “does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.

“However, ICE no longer exempts classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” he said. “All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

Eleni Wolfe, immigration program director of Centro Legal de la Raza, an Oakland nonprofit that provides legal support for immigrants and others, said the arrests reported Sunday were not necessarily unusual.

“Eleven people arrested over the weekend isn’t news, unfortunately; that’s just ICE,” she said. “But it’s good that people are paying attention.”

She said a hotline that people can call to report ICE activity in Alameda County had been overwhelmed since Schaaf’s announcement. Many callers were asking whether it was safe to take their children to school or go to work, Wolfe said.

Oakland Councilman Noel Gallo, who represents the heavily Latino Fruitvale neighborhood, said the mayor’s announcement created undue community anxiety and vitriol from around the country directed at Oakland. Gallo said his City Hall phone line was filled Monday with “hateful, racist” messages.

“Her statement at this time may have done more harm than help,” he said.

Schaaf, who has received threats since she spoke of the imminent arrests, said she intended her warning to educate, not alarm, immigrants.

“I made a choice to share it broadly in a manner that I hope did not cause panic or fear,” she said. “It’s my hope that everyone goes about their normal lives, but armed with information and resources.”

Jim Ross, an Oakland political consultant, said Schaaf’s warning could help rebuild trust with immigrant-advocacy organizations that may have disagreed with her defense of a West Oakland operation by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division last August, during which city cops provided traffic control.

“The thing that’s extraordinary is not that the mayor learned about this and did something,” Ross said of Schaaf’s announcement over the weekend. “It’s that she learned about this and did something publicly.”

While Schaaf could have warned immigration lawyers and organizations directly, Ross said, her strategy got the word out much faster.

“I can’t see any political downside to it,” he said. “ICE has become the chief law enforcement arm of the Trump administration. If you’re seen to be aiding or abetting ICE, even passively, you’re seen as aiding Donald Trump.”

Schaaf said she consulted with lawyers on her Saturday night statement and sent it to City Attorney Barbara Parker ahead of its release, though it wasn’t clear whether Parker, who was sick over the weekend, responded in time.

The mayor said she was “confident that my sharing of this information, because I did not receive it through official channels, is legal.”

Kimberly Veklerov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kveklerov@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kveklerov