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If President Trump is successful in withholding funds from sanctuary cities, the financial impact on San Francisco would be minimal, according to City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
When the executive order was first issued, the city was in jeopardy of losing more than $1 billion in federal funding as a result of Trump’s executive order threatening sanctuary cities, Herrera said.
But last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated the only federal grants that would be withheld from sanctuary cities are those from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
According to Herrera, those grants total less than $10 million for San Francisco.
“Now, even if we lose, they’ve walked it back so far…that the financial hit to San Francisco would be very, very small,” Herrera said in a press conference Tuesday morning. “But, we’re not gonna lose anyway.”
Rather than putting federal funding at risk, some counties that were once sanctuary jurisdictions have chosen instead to cooperate with federal immigration agents. In February, the Miami-Dade County Commission voted 9-3 to drop the county’s sanctuary status.
Herrera said every jurisdiction is entitled to make a decision about what fits their local needs, but thinks the Mayor of Miami acted precipitously.
“What we’ve demonstrated is that there was no need to act as quickly as perhaps the Mayor of Miami did,” Herrera said. “I certainly wouldn’t have done that when I see the benefits of being a sanctuary city has brought to this city.”
But not all Californians agree that San Francisco’s sanctuary status is valuable.
Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) is a Santa Barbara-based organization that advocates for slowing immigration, calling the sanctuary status of San Francisco a threat to public safety.
“It’s incomprehensible that the state leaders would advocate for such a thing,” National Media Director for CAPS Joe Guzzardi said. “Why wouldn’t they want to work with immigration officials to get the worst of the worst out of the state? This shouldn’t be a polarizing issue.”
However, this public safety argument was recently refuted by a University of California-San Diego political scientist who found sanctuary jurisdictions experienced 35.5 fewer crimes per 10,000 residents as opposed to non-sanctuary jurisdictions.
“What the president, and others, attempt to do is highlight tragic events and say that that represents really what occurs, when the facts do not bear that out,” Herrera said Tuesday.
Herrera said in his career he has learned he can’t predict the unpredictable and he can’t control the uncontrollable.
But in this case, he said, he predicts San Francisco will defeat the Trump administration in the sanctuary city issue.
“I am the first to agree that America has not done a good job at securing its borders,” Herrera said. “But because the federal government has failed in its responsibility, we have to deal with the effects.
If you believe in the concept of federalism, localities should have the opportunity to proscribe how to deal with things in their locality, so we have to deal with that.”
A little after 7 a.m., San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is en route to University High School in his black Toyota Highlander, his freshman son Declan sitting shotgun.
The radio is off, their cell phones are silenced and left in their pockets.
This morning, like every weekday morning, Declan shared the breakfast table with his iPad, sleepily scrolling through the day’s headlines on CNN.com, preparing questions about the news to ask his father who watches the same stories on the television upstairs.
This morning, like every weekday morning, the two spend the 25-minute ride to Declan’s school from their Dogpatch neighborhood home passing thoughts on current events back and forth in the front seat.
Since November, these headlines have kept Dennis Herrera up at night.
As City Attorney, he is sleepless over the thought that public confidence in government officials like him is being corroded.
As a father, he tosses and turns predicting how the president’s decisions might affect his 15-year-old’s future.
As the son of a Colombian immigrant father and the first Latino to serve in his position, he worries about the impact tougher immigration law enforcement is having on his community.
That’s why in January, Herrera began to make headlines of his own, suing President Trump’s executive order threatening to withhold federal funds from so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ like San Francisco that protect undocumented immigrants.
As a result of the suit, a federal judge halted the enforcement of the executive order in April.
“It’s always been my view that if you want to make a difference, you can do it in your local community,” Herrera said. “Now with the election of President Trump you have seen media pundits talking about how power was now going to have to be wielded by states.
Everyone’s kind of late to the party. That’s what I’ve been talking about for 10 or 15 years.”
And it hasn’t been just talk. Herrera has made headlines before.
Since his election to City Attorney in 2001, Herrera has taken an “activist approach” in his role: defending the city’s affordable housing laws, holding arbitration providers accountable for publicizing consumers’ private information and challenging practices of the gun industry on several occasions.
Most famously, Herrera filed the first government lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of state marriage laws discriminating against gay and lesbian couples, successfully securing marriage equality in California in 2013.
“[Challenging Trump’s executive order] was only the latest in what is my philosophy of using the law in a progressive way to make a difference in people’s lives each and every day,” Herrera said.
He said his predecessor Louise Renne, who served as City Attorney for 16 years, redefined what it meant to be a municipal lawyer – taking on gunmakers, tobacco companies as well as the Olympic Club, a formerly exclusive men’s golf club that allowed women to be members after Renne’s suit.
“I’m glad to say Dennis has continued that tradition.” Renne said. “As times change, the focus of the office changes, and now we have a federal government threatening sanctuary cities. It falls on the City Attorney and local government to assess the impact of that.”
Herrera, now 54, had only planned to live in California for a summer.
Originally from Glen Cove, New York, Herrera switched coasts because an article he read on page two of the Washington Post sports section described striped bass fishing in the Bay Area. Between fishing and a cousin based in San Francisco, Herrera had reason enough to head west.
So the soon-to-be graduate of George Washington Law School and his roommate Samir Tuma drove from D.C. to California Thanksgiving weekend 1986 to apply for summer internships.
Herrera thought the entire state would be like “Baywatch.” Instead, he found San Francisco had an east-coast-feeling urbanity that helped him adjust quickly.
With most law offices closed for the holiday, Herrera slid a hundred resumes under doors, a method that secured him an internship at a maritime law firm in summer 1987.
As a new San Francisco resident, Herrera immediately became involved, connecting with local Democratic clubs and working on several campaigns. In 1990, he was appointed to the Waterfront Plan Advisory Board and served on the Finance Committee for the California Democratic Party.
“When we first moved to San Francisco, I said he’d last five years max because he’s an east coast kid,” Tuma said. “But then he’s realized that [California] is where his moral compass is more at home.”
After being actively involved in the Clinton-Gore campaign, he served as the Chief of Staff for the U.S. Maritime Administration under President Clinton in 1993.
“I know what it’s like to be in Washington,” Herrera said. “But if you are a lawyer who wants to make a difference in your community, and are committed to public service, there is no more interesting position than being a municipal lawyer.”
Returning home to San Francisco, he became a partner in the maritime law firm Kelly, Gill, Sherburne & Herrera.
He continued to be involved in local politics, appointed to the San Francisco Transportation Commission by then-Mayor Willie Brown, as well as the San Francisco Police Commission where after just one year he was voted President.
When his mother first visited him in California for the first time, she wasn’t impressed with the place Herrera had chosen to call home.
“I don’t know what you see in this damn place,” she said as they walked up Russian Hill in the fog. “This is Queens with hills and bay windows.”
So what is it that he has seen in this place?
He sees people who make sure their voices are heard, keeping every single letter, positive or negative, a constituent writes him.
He sees a city that serves as a catalyst for nationwide policy changes, from marriage equality to sanctuary jurisdictions.
And in his car’s passenger seat, he sees the future generation of San Franciscans he hopes to leave with better news than the day before.
On the corner of 23rd and Valencia streets, kindergarteners wail as they attach themselves to their parent’s pant legs, refusing to let go in fear their guardian might disappear.
Junior high students ask one another, “Are you illegal? Is your grandma illegal?,” investigating who should feel safe and who should not. Others are locked in a cross armed, furrowed brow position.
It’s November 9, 2016, and school has just let out at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 school, where 80 percent of students are Latino and half are English learners.
They spent most of the morning in an emergency assembly, where administrators assured them no one would snatch them from their afternoon math class, that yes, their parents would still be there when they arrived home.
Some were brought illegally to the U.S. or have a parent that lacks legal documentation. All know someone fearing deportation under the new presidential administration.
That’s why on the same corner seven months after the election, a different image can be seen: Pastel-colored ceramic sunflowers, daisies and petunias arranged in a seven-foot circular de-sign welcoming visitors of the Spanish-English immersion school.
“Every time you come up this main entrance, we want you to come in here knowing that you are loved and you are safe,” Assistant Principal Claudia DeLarios Moran said of the school’s students, “and this will be a constant reminder.”
The installation, mounted May 23, is what parents and artists Deb Gutof and Deb Caperton call the Unity Project, each of the nearly 650 flowers symbolizing growth, renewal and diversity in the school’s community.
Gutof picked up her sobbing third and sixth graders from school the day after the election and watched them tightly squeeze their immigrant peers.
This image prompted Gutof and Caperton, co-founders of Spark Ceramics, to brainstorm how art might help express the feelings Buena Vista Horace Mann families and faculty held.
But rather than creating a piece that explicitly counters the administration, she wanted students to collaborate on a piece that celebrates both qualities that make them unique and those that unify them.
“The minute you put up a sign that says ‘We Hate Trump’ it can turn people away,” Gutof said. “But this is non-threatening and has more of a potential to open people’s minds.”
When Gutof taught fine arts at Menlo-Atherton High School, she developed a similar flower mural in 2013 after three students lost their parents in a hit-and-run accident.
Projects like these two, she said, create time for communities to be together as they process grief or fear.
Gutof grew up in a predominantly-white suburb of Chicago where she said dialogue about di-versity and politics, especially among young people, was unheard of.
“In this space, you can’t get away from the conversation,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to know even six-year-olds in this community are aware of what is changing.”
In addition to the Unity Project, Buena Vista Horace Mann has also hosted workshops for im-migrant parents seeking information on their rights.
“We’ve done a lot to make the families and students in our community feel comfortable and safe,” Moran said. “But I think this coming year we are going to try to start to shift doing things with the students so that they have their own agency,”
There are other reminders of hope students see as they enter the school building: photos from the November march up Valencia Street, where hundreds of students held up handmade signs reading “Build Kindness Not Walls” or “Somos amigables un pueblo unido” – we are a united town.
And on the walk to school through the Mission district, students pass hundreds of colorful wall murals by Latino artists.
Art, Moran said, might be what eases the fears of those in the Buena Vista Horace Mann com-munity.
“The threatening language of this administration is not the only narrative that you’re hearing and seeing,” Moran said. “Because we’re surrounded by people that have created narratives to counter it.”