Obey the Law, or Not

In Santa Barbara County government, obeying the law appears to be a matter of political expediency.

At an August 21, 2007 Board of Supervisors’ hearing on state housing mandates, Brooks Firestone, Chairman of the Board, declared that as a Supervisor he took an oath of office to obey the law. He exhorted the County and its citizens to obey the law.

Despite this alleged affinity for obeying the law, one week later, the Board of Supervisors elected not to obey the law in response to a Grand Jury report on the deleterious effects of immigration on the County. In doing so, the Board of Supervisors justified its refusal to act by contending it was not empowered to make immigration policy, which is solely within the purview of the federal government. That was pure obfuscation, however, since the issue before the Board was not one of making immigration policy but one of simply enforcing the law.

The report before the Board on August 28 was a product of the 2006-2007 County Grand Jury. The Grand Jury is composed of county citizens that volunteer a year of their lives and many hundreds of hours to investigate important local issues and make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. This aspect of the Grand Jury function serves as an important check and balance on County government, with the laudable goal of achieving better governance.

The Grand Jury, in a thoughtful and well-researched report, sought to present a balanced and constructive assessment of the social and economic impacts of immigration on Santa Barbara County. While the report recognizes that immigration is regulated by federal law it also spells out measures the County can and should take to improve the detrimental effects of illegal immigration in the County. The entire text of the report – which is well worth reading – is available at www.countyofsb.org.

The Grand Jury began by recognizing there is no accurate count of the number of illegal immigrants residing in the County or those who utilize public services. Without an understanding of the true population of the County, it is impossible for the County to adequately plan for infrastructure and public services.

The number of illegal immigrants is unknown because County departments, while they have the absolute legal right to inquire as to legal residency status when people apply for County services, elect not to do so. (U. S. Immigration & Nationality Act, Title 8, Chapter 14, sub-chapter IV, section 1644). County departments can also verify legal residency through the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements computer data system. Nevertheless, County departments choose in many instances not to determine legal residency or eligibility.

While many counties across the United States are successfully moving to enforce the law to deny most non-emergency government services to illegal immigrants, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors took no action to correct this after hearing the Grand Jury report. In doing so, the Board shirked its legal responsibility to the many law-abiding citizens of the County by expending hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars of their money to deliver services to ineligible recipients. Most citizens are unaware of this practice and certainly did not vote for or consent to their tax dollars being used in this way.

The impact on housing is among the areas touched upon in the Grand Jury report. Not surprisingly, a consequence of the huge influx of illegal immigrants to Santa Barbara County and throughout California is a housing shortage. Since many of the illegal immigrants to California are non-English speaking with little formal education, employed in low-income jobs, the greatest demand is for high-density, low-income housing. To address this housing shortage, the State of California (having done nothing to stem the tsunami of illegal immigrants into the state), now demands that all counties and cities set aside land to build thousands more houses every five years.

The State housing “mandates” for Santa Barbara County for 2003 to 2008 were 17,351 housing units and for 2008 to 2013 are an additional 13,000+ more housing units. While the law specifically limits a local jurisdiction’s housing obligations to “Californians,” the reality is the population projections used to come up with the numbers in all probability include many illegal immigrants. This is likely because the factors used by the State to come up with the required number of houses to be built in a particular jurisdiction are based upon population projections from the State’s Department of Finance and regional population forecasts used in preparing regional transportation plans, not on any accurate census of legal residents.

However, we don’t know for certain what these numbers are based upon because the County of Santa Barbara has done nothing to inquire, let alone legally contest, the exorbitant number of houses mandated for the County of Santa Barbara by the State.

A recent audit of the County’s affordable housing program revealed substantial fraud. Among the fraudulent acts revealed are that illegal immigrants, though not qualified to receive taxpayer subsidized housing, nevertheless applied for and received such units. To date the County has not revealed whether it has taken any steps to correct this fraud on the taxpayers or to enforce the law.

The Grand Jury report also reveals alarming impacts on health care, educational, social services and law enforcement in the County. Given escalating gang violence, reappearance of infectious diseases, over-crowding and the immense burdens placed on schools and health services by illegal immigration, the Board of Supervisors owed the public a more thoughtful and responsible consideration of the Grand Jury’s hard work.