Case and Materials

Making a Statement: Mayor Libby Schaaf and the Sanctuary City of Oakland, California

  • Authors Gaylen Moore, Christopher Robichaud, Jorrit de Jong, Anna Burgess

Last Updated

Strategic Leadership and Management

North America, West Region, United States


Mayor Libby Schaaf faced a moral dilemma when she received credible information that would negatively impact the large number of undocumented immigrants in her sanctuary city of Oakland, California. With time running out, and questions swirling about legal constraints and moral obligations, how did she decide what to do as mayor of the city?

The case is designed to help mayors, city leaders, and other public executives think through adaptive leadership challenges with highly sensitive moral dimensions.

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In February 2018, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf learned through unofficial sources that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was planning to arrest a large number of undocumented immigrants in her city. Oakland had been a “sanctuary city” since 1986, and more than one in ten residents were undocumented. Schaaf believed that the ICE action was the Trump administration’s political retaliation against California’s sanctuary cities. She feared that law-abiding immigrants in her community—who she saw as scapegoats for a broken federal immigration system—would be swept up in the raid and subject to deportation. Faced with very little time and potentially significant legal implications, Schaaf had to decide whether and how to alert the community to a threat she took to be highly credible.

The case is designed to help mayors, city leaders, other public executives, and students of public leadership and public policy think through moral leadership challenges and questions about the bases and boundaries of authority, discretion, and legitimate action on controversial topics with highly sensitive moral dimensions.

Learning Objectives

The aims of this case are to help students and practitioners:

Understand the three key points of view that inform moral decision making for public leaders:

  • Personal perspective (personal values and identity);
  • Professional perspective (role obligations and opportunities); and
  • Political perspective (community norms and stakeholder interests).

Use a conceptual framework to explore the tensions among these perspectives and guide moral reasoning and decision making for public leaders.

Deepen their understanding of key concepts in:

  • Moral philosophy (deontological vs. consequentialist orientations);
  • Public administration (discretionary authority and administrative (dis)obedience); and/or
  • Leadership theory (adaptive leadership and leading change).

Reflect on their own reasoning and decision-making with regard to prior, current, or anticipated moral dilemmas and leadership challenges.

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