Pittsburg rejects sanctuary city status, fears loss of federal funds

Pittsburg is the latest Bay Area city to pass on declaring sanctuary status, worried about the possible loss of federal funds in retaliation.

The east Contra Costa County city of some 60,000 held a marathon study session Monday evening, the same day Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to withhold grants to municipalities that refuse to cooperate with immigration enforcement.

"I am here with hundreds if not thousands of people who are not afraid anymore," declared Arturo Fernandez, among dozens of people who lined up to speak to the Pittsburg city council on the issue.

"This will only encourage persons to come here illegally," said another speaker, opposed to the sanctuary status. 

It was an overflow crowd, with a viewing area and monitor set up outside the council chambers and another a floor below, with Spanish translation.

The session began with police reiterating: they don't ask for documentation, ever.

"Our role is not to enforce immigration laws. We don't intend to start enforcing immigration laws," said Police Chief Brian Addington, while admitting the climate is changing.

"ICE has been in our community and made an arrest just within the past two weeks, and it's the first time that's happened, to our knowledge, in years," he informed the crowd.

Fernandez, a U.C. Berkeley grad student who was born in Mexico but raised in Pittsburg since infancy, has collected a few hundred signatures on a petition urging adoption of a sanctuary resolution.

"If these are our values, if this is a policy that already exists, all we're asking is we codify it," he declared. 

But the council decided to move cautiously, looking at approximately $60 million the city has received in federal funds and grants over the past four years.

The money is spent on everything from housing subsidies to street repair, code enforcement to crime fighting, plus keeping a dozen non-profit agencies afloat.

"The short term risk of sanctuary is an immediate loss of funds," said Pittsburg city attorney Ruthann Ziegler, "and the long term risk is unknown.

Around town, the sanctuary issue has people talking.

"If somebody is a criminal or on drugs or whatever, then yes, take them and deport them," restaurant owner Johny Khalilieh told KTVU.

Khalilieh came to the U.S. as a student, earning advanced degrees in mathematics, and becoming a citizen.

He teaches college math, in addition to running his Italian restaurant, and he believes anyone who lives peaceably should be protected.

"We have a diverse culture here in Pittsburg. Everybody watches for each other. And I would hate to see some of my customers disappear," Khalilieh added.

Many in the city hall crowd, though, spoke harshly of the sanctuary concept, as unfair, even undemocratic. 

"This is a distorted mindset and it shows a complete lack of respect for the law," opponent Joey Foster told the council. "This cannot go unchallenged by citizens."

After a marathon four hour session, the council members directed staff to draft a letter of support for sanctuary principles, but shelve the notion of a formal declaration.