Mayor Michael Tubbs addresses a gathering in Stockton, California. Courtesy of the City of Stockton

Michael Tubbs on being singled out by the DOJ, and his plan turn his city around.

In the years after the Great Recession, Stockton, California, became the poster child of financial ruin. The mid-sized city was crushed by the housing collapse, and made national headlines for the resulting high foreclosure rates, drastic municipal cuts, record violent crime, and finally, bankruptcy. For these reasons and others, it has featured at the very top of Forbes’ annual list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities” more than once.

Now, as it begins its ascent out of that depression, Stockton is in the news again. It’s among four cities singled out by the Department of Justice to conduct strict immigration enforcement in exchange for crime-fighting help. In a statement accompanying his letter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions warns:

“The Department of Justice is committed to supporting our law enforcement at every level, and that’s why we’re asking ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions to stop making their jobs harder.”

Stockton declined that request. Its first African American mayor, Michael Tubbs—a 26-year-old Stockton native who won with 70 percent of the votes—has big plans for the city. And they don’t include having the police enforce immigration law on the streets.

CityLab spoke with Mayor Tubbs about his response to the DOJ and his strategy to remake and rebrand Stockton. The highlights of the conversation are below.

What is the response you’re considering sending the DOJ?

Our response is that violent crime remains a priority for us. We understand the need for partnerships from state, federal, and local agencies to get ahead of our violent crime problem. But because we don’t operate the jails, I think almost everything in that letter didn't pertain to us as a jurisdiction. We are arguing that we still qualify for the [program] and hope that the process is fair and equitable.

Is Stockton a sanctuary city?

Our policies are consistent with many sanctuary cities in that our police department doesn’t stop, detain, or arrest anyone solely on suspected immigration status. The difference is that we don’t operate the jails or detention facilities, so we’re not able to make pronouncements of policies in that realm.

Is that policy of not checking immigration status in the field going to remain intact, despite AG Sessions’ threat?

Absolutely. When you look at Stockton, 35 percent of our population is foreign-born. So it’s not just some marginal group, it's our city. We are a city of immigrants. To keep Stockton safe—and to be as great as we can be—we need participation from everyone.

We've been doing a lot of work over the past several years building community trust because that helps keep our community safe. When people feel afraid, when people feel like they can’t trust, when people feel like they are targeted, then you see calls for service go down, you see civic participation go down, and you see all the bad things go up.

I read local reports that some residents want Stockton to sue the government, following the footsteps of San Francisco and Chicago. Is that in the cards at all?

It seems a little premature at this point, because we haven’t lost any funding. We were just sent a letter about what it would take to get funding. It would be very premature to say what we're going to sue the federal government because we don't yet have a cause.

Sessions asked Stockton to demonstrate its “commitment to reducing violent crime stemming from illegal immigration.” What role does “illegal immigration” play in fueling violent crime in your city?

I would say our crime problem—especially our violent crime problem—stems from poverty and lack of opportunity. According to research, that’s true for violent crime problems everywhere. Occasionally, there might be someone who's undocumented, who might be a part of a violent crime issue. But it would be a misstatement and a falsehood to say that violent crime, that's been trouble for at least the last 28 to 30 years here, happens because of undocumented folks.

What would you like people to know about your city that they do not know?

Stockton is the all-American city. It’s literally a microcosm of America. Stockton is home to the most diverse, resilient, and creative people I know. The city’s incredible diversity is a huge strength of ours. The oldest Sikh temple in this nation—in this continent, actually—is found in Stockton. At one point, we had the largest Filipino population outside the Philippines. Folks like Maya Angelou, Dolores Huerta, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jose Hernandez—the astronaut—all lived in Stockton.

The city has a lot of assets. We have the University of the Pacific, one of the best institutions in this country, here. We have the largest inland delta in the state. We have the largest inland port in the state. We're doing everything we can to leverage these assets to be successful. Stockton is also very affordable. You could get yourself a house. It doesn't have the hustle bustle of some of the other cities I know; it really feels like home.

Local headlines at the height of Stockton’s financial crisis in 2014. (Max Whittaker/Reuters)

Let's talk broadly about Stockton. The city continues to face economic and crime-related problems. These issues aren’t abstract for you—you’ve grown up in a distressed neighborhood and lost family members to violent crime. How do you intend to fix this town?

Well, I hope you have time!

Number one: World class cities need world class schools. So, we're working very closely with our school districts on a policy agenda that will raise standards and boost outcomes.

Number two: A really aggressive poverty reduction and economic development strategy, with the eye towards narrowing the skills gap. In 2012, the Brookings Institution said we’re the 95th in the top 100 metro areas in terms of skills gap preparedness. So, I’m spending a lot of energy focusing on how to give our residents the skills needed for the jobs of today and tomorrow. To start, we’re working on partnerships with a couple of cutting-edge training programs.

Number three: We’re tackling violent crime. In Stockton, less than one percent of folks commit 70 to 80 percent of violent crime. So, it's literally less than a hundred people. And our response historically to those people has been jail time, jail time, jail time. My plan is to offer a carrot and a stick. The carrot is: If you want to change your life, we understand that it’s difficult, we understand that you might need some help, we understand that we might have to be really patient with you—but we’re willing to do everything we can to help you transition. We’re really focused on giving these folks pathways out of crime and reintegrating them into our society. If they don’t, then definitely, we will consider appropriate enforcement actions.

We have five hot zone areas which have historically had double the city's crime rate. They’re high in everything bad and low in everything good. So, we're working on developing collective impact approaches—working with philanthropies, nonprofits, residents, and private sector businesses—to figure out what can we do with what we have in these cul-de-sacs, in order to improve outcomes.

In addition to that, we are partnering with our local institutions and national philanthropists to fund best practices as they relate to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). There’s this whole body of research about how the experience of children between the ages from zero to five is pivotal. For a lot of kids who live in poverty or who are exposed to trauma, adverse childhood experiences manifest themselves in antisocial behavior later on. So we’re looking to cities like San Francisco, to help inform our our practices.

We're also doing a lot of policy work now around cannabis legalization. We’re asking: How do we position Stockton not to be the dispensary capital of the world, but to be the cannabis manufacturing, distribution, and testing capital of the world? Basically, we want to bring to Stockton the parts of the cannabis industry that brings the jobs.

And then finally: housing. We’re looking at policies to bring more more affordable units online, especially because we've had the highest rental market in the past month. We want to make sure folks aren’t priced out. I'm also working very closely with our county on establishing a housing-first policy, understanding that the way to end chronic homelessness is to put people in permanent supportive housing.

That’s my plan in a nutshell. It really centers around creating economic opportunity, with a focus on holistic approaches to public safety and education.

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