OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — One Saturday in February, as she criss-crossed town going to community events, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf received a message from a credible source: Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers were on the verge of conducting a large sweep in Northern California. It was the second such tip she’d received in the last few days, and she was sensitive to it.
The previous August, when ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations raided a home, Oakland police officers had blocked off traffic, and immigration advocates accused Schaaf of working hand-in-glove with ICE — a no-no in progressive Oakland. The advocates told Schaaf that the next time immigration officers came to town, they wanted to know about it.
And so on Feb. 24, only hours before the impending sweep, Schaaf organized a conference call with local immigrant advocates and religious leaders. She wanted to talk through an extraordinary decision she would eventually make — to warn the public that the feds were coming. The move would catapult Schaaf to the national stage and into the crosshairs of President Trump.
The episode also would mark a turning point in the already tense relationship between federal officials who favor strict immigration enforcement and local leaders in sanctuary cities that forbid cooperating with deportation efforts. It’s unclear if, in these cities, any collaboration with ICE will ever be tenable again.
But first, before she could consider a move that would cause crowds to chant that she should be locked in prison, the mayor of Oakland had to clean up her son’s bedroom, clearing it out so that the wood floors could be repaired, a promise she had made to her husband amidst all of her other mayoral tasks. Since Schaaf’s schedule is relentless, with work not stopping on the weekends or in the evenings, she takes promises to her family seriously.
“As you can imagine, the mayor of Oakland is not the best wife,” she said.
So, that Saturday afternoon, Schaaf put on her iPhone headphones and dialed-in to a call that featured local advocates and a priest. As she cleaned the room, Schaaf heard a split opinion: some said that telling the public would cause undue panic and fear in the immigrant community.
Meanwhile, Schaaf’s mind turned to two people: one, an Oakland nurse, Maria Mendoza-Sanchez, who was targeted by the Trump administration, even though she had no criminal background, a successful job, and US citizen children. The case caught local media attention and got politicians involved, advocating for her to stay in the country, but in the end she was deported.
The second was personal: Karely Ordaz, a DACA recipient and then special assistant to Schaaf. The day after the election, Schaaf saw Ordaz, and the two began to cry.
“I am so sorry. This must be so horrible for you and your family. You must be so frightened,” Schaaf told her that day.
“Mayor, honestly, it doesn’t change anything,” Ordaz responded. “We live in fear all of the time.”
Schaaf thought of those words, and of the nurse’s family, as she heard the arguments for and against the public notice.
“I thought, this information is not going to panic people. People live in a state of panic, we have neighbors, co-workers, people we sit next to in the church pews that live in this constant state of fear and yet it is invisible to us, because it is a status they don’t wear,” she said. “How could I live with myself if it came to be that my sharing this information could have kept a family together? And, of course, I am thinking about Maria.”
At the end of the call, Schaaf told the group plainly: she was going to do it. Throughout the day, in between community events, Schaaf would continue to work on a statement that would be released that night. They focused on not panicking the public, encouraging awareness, and pointing out resources. They wouldn’t do a press conference, no TV hits: just a plain statement.
Finally, by that evening, Schaaf got to Aisle 5, a gastropub in Oakland’s Grand Lake district, to meet up with her family and friends, who had just wrapped up a basketball tournament. As everyone piled around the table, Schaaf looked up from her phone and told them she needed five minutes.
While they talked, and waiters passed by delivering burgers, Schaaf read over the statement — the bomb — they were about to drop.
“I signed off on the final version. While I was in there it went out,” she said. For the rest of the night, she focused on her family and friends. She tried to let it go.
Shortly after, a tweet went out from her account with no words, just a screenshot of a statement: “Mayor Schaaf Encourages Residents To Consult Immigration Resources Due To Potential ICE Activity.” It spread quickly.
Her staff expected some local media interest, maybe a packed press conference in the morning.
Within hours, their phones were full of voicemails. And her tip proved accurate: over the next couple of days, ICE rounded up 232 undocumented immigrants across central and northern California.
Trump administration officials were livid: the then acting head of ICE, Thomas Homan, compared her to a gang lookout. Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions accused her of allowing hundreds of undocumented immigrants to escape. “How dare you?” he said. Trump said she should be investigated for obstruction of justice.
Soon, at the president’s rallies, the crowds chanted a familiar phrase when he discussed Schaaf: “LOCK HER UP!” In May, Steve King, the Republican congressman from Iowa, introduced legislation — titled the Libby Schaaf Act — that would imprison government officials for up to five years if they alerted the public to an ICE raid.
Suddenly, she had gone from a mayor dealing with local angst over gentrification and high housing prices to a national figure on immigration.
The intense focus drew in her family, too: her kids quickly became targets as some social media users posted their pictures, saying they should be murdered by an “illegal immigrant.” The family tried not to discuss the attention or the potential criminal charges Trump kept hinting at.
“It’s been surreal to turn on the TV and see a bunch of people hold ‘lock her up’ signs and they are talking about me,” she said. “It has been surreal to hear the president of the United States reference you, particularly about why the attorney general hasn’t put you in jail yet.”
Schaaf’s team used the Trump attacks in her re-election campaign this fall. Her team ran an ad that said that when Trump attacked Oakland, Schaaf “dared” him to lock her up, “showing just how far she'll go to punch back when Trump attacks Oakland.” She won handedly.
Longtime watchers of immigration politics in California and the country watched in awe. Many localities in California had distanced themselves over the years from cooperating with ICE, limiting when local law enforcement officials can notify the agency of undocumented immigrants in their custody. But this was different, it was not what a city wasn’t going to do, it was proactively taking a step to thwart what ICE was about to do.
“This is one of the first times — if ever — I’ve seen anyone do anything like this, and I was surprised at the fact that it was so pointed, ” said Pratheepan Gulasekaram, an immigration expert at Santa Clara University School of Law. From Gulasekaram’s perspective, Schaaf was essentially saying, “we simply don’t believe anybody should be engaged in this sort of activity, we believe in protecting people regardless of status.”
Advocates on the national level were supportive — Sean McElwee, a leading proponent of the “Abolish ICE” movement, called it “badass” — and her former assistant, Ordaz, said she was proud of the mayor.
“When she disclosed that a conversation we had after the election of Donald Trump ultimately push her to the decision, I felt a deep sense of care and compassion from her,” Ordaz said.
But former ICE officials were critical. John Sandweg, the ICE director under Obama, said the public notice put officer’s safety at risk — a charge Schaaf denied, pointing out that her statement did not mention specific locations.
“It’s a low point and this is why the politics of immigration results in bad policy, you have to cooperate with ICE. When politicians get involved — the mayor, the White House —everyone takes extreme positions,” he said. Trump shared some blame, Sandweg said: his extreme rhetoric had forced local politicians to take extreme positions on ICE because of the fear in the communities.
“There needs to be a compromise. There is a role for ICE,” he said.
Schaaf disagrees. She believes that a relationship between local entities and ICE is no longer viable.
“This agency has gone astray and has so broken the trust, particularly in cities like mine, I believe we would all be better served to start from scratch,” she said.
In the months since, Schaaf has found some relief in the fact that Sessions was pushed out of the administration, Homan resigned and talk of an investigation of her actions appears to have faded. At a gala in March, George Shultz, a Republican and Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, told her she’d done a “good job” in informing the public of the raid. Schaaf has no doubt she made the right move.
“I have no regrets, none. The more time goes by, the more certain I feel that I did the right thing in standing up for our community and pointing out our values are not aligned with our laws,” she said. “That’s hopefully the message that is sent out.”