As Sanctuary City Bill Dies, Question Arises: How Progressive Is Hawaii?

Jun 17, 2019

Credit Teemu008 / Flickr

A bill designating Honolulu as a sanctuary city died on Thursday, prompting the question: how progressive is Hawaii? States, counties and cities across the country have adopted sanctuary policies to protect unauthorized immigrants and limit the role of local law emforcement agencies in immigration enforcement but similar efforts have not gained traction in the islands.

City Council members Ann Kobayashi and Carol Fukunaga introduced Bill 31 earlier this month but last week, they issued a statement that they were dropping the measure in face of community opposition.

The death of Bill 31 came after a similar fate befell state Senate measure S.B. 557, which aimed to prevent state and county law enforcement agencies from complying with federal agents to detain immigrants unless required by a warrant or given other circumstances.

So why have Hawaii leaders, who have long celebrated the state's liberal and immigrant roots, been unable to pass sanctuary legislation that counterparts in California, Oregon and elsewhere have adopted? 

One factor may be the clout of law enforcement inerests at the Legislature and county councils.

The Senate bill would have placed limits on the enforcement of federal immigration laws by police officers, some of whom say they would be forced to choose between enforcing state and federal laws if the measure passed.

"Part of the reason I think it's failed is because the public of Oahu doesn't want to see our Hawaii police department hamstrung in performing their duties in securing the safety of the people of Oahu." - Brett Kulbis

The Honolulu Police Department also said in written testimony to the Senate Ways and Means Committee that the measure would threaten the department's ability to qualify for federal funding.

As part of President Trump's immigration policies, the federal government imposed conditions on law enforcement agencies applying for criminal justice assistance grants, which fund programs like community policing. Although the conditions have been challenged in the courts, there have been no final decision.

The state Department of the Attorney General predicted in written testimony that Hawaii could come under increased scrutiny in applying for the grants if the Senate bill was approved. The department urged lawmakers to wait until the litigation is resolved.

Strong opposition to Bill 31 also came from law emforcement.

If Bill 31 had been adopted, opponents said HPD officers would be restricted in the actions they could take against individuals based on immigration status or history. Under the bill, HPD would not have to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection requests for private information, such as home or work addresses, given certain circumstances.

Brett Kulbis, Oahu GOP Honolulu County chair, predicted Bill 31 would have greatly hindered HPD officers from doing their jobs.

“Part of the reason I think it's failed is because the public of Oahu doesn’t want to see our Hawaii police department hamstrung in performing their duties in securing the safety of the people of Oahu,” Kulbis said.

On the other side of the debate, Colin Moore, director of the at the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center, said in places with sanctuary policies such as California, crime rates have decreased because immigrants are more likely to report crimes where they feel safe from federal immigration authorities.

"Honolulu and Hawaii are not as progressive as people think they are; this is a cautious place." - Colin Moore

Church of the Crossroads, the grassroots group Hawaii J-20+ and LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Park also supported the Senate measure.

"The Federal Government has declared war on immigrants and Hawaii should not be complicit let alone compliant with this war on immigrants," the LGBT Caucus said in testimony on the measure.

Moore said the City Council’s action to kill the Bill 31 is reflective of the fears their constituents may have about public safety. Moore argues fears about worsening Hawaii’s homelessness crisis, crime rates and economy are unfounded. He says there is currently no evidence that these fears would become true. 

Hawaii isn't as liberal as it used to be, Moore observed.

“Honolulu and Hawaii are not as progressive as people think they are; this is a cautious place,” said Moore. “Especially given the cost burden of living here, I think it has made people far more conservative than they use to be when it comes to expanding social services, which I think is their fear of what would need to happen if there were an increase in undocumented immigrants here.”

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, there are eight sanctuary states, including California and Massachusetts, in the U.S. A majority of the sanctuary counties and cities are based in the Pacific Northwest and Northeastern regions of the country.