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At their first meeting since last week’s election, members of the Santa Ana City Council majority threw down the gauntlet to both President-elect Donald Trump and the city’s police officers union.
In reaction to Trump’s vow to deport millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants, council members declared their heavily immigrant community a “sanctuary city” that will refuse to cooperate with deportations.
And in a major shift, some council members pushed for a quick cancelation of the city’s contract to hold federal immigration detainees in the city’s jail. The contract is the main funding source for the jail, which doesn’t hold people arrested by local police.
Additionally, in a move that’s unprecedented in the city’s modern history, several council members publicly lambasted the city police officers’ union for what they called an “ugly” election effort to take control of the council and pressure them to fire Police Chief Carlos Rojas.
Members of the council majority – which includes David Benavides, Vicente Sarmiento, Sal Tinajero, and Michele Martinez – expressed shock at Trump’s win and said local families are terrified about what will happen when he takes office on Jan. 20.
Cracking down on illegal immigration was Trump’s central campaign message. He promised to create a “deportation force” to remove all of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Trump has softened his rhetoric since the election, but has made it clear that deportations will increase under his administration.
More than 40 percent of Santa Ana adults are not citizens, and the city of 343,000 is believed to have among the highest proportions of unauthorized immigrants of any American city its size or larger.
Benavides said children and parents were “literally in tears” after the election when he went into his job at KidWorks, a nonprofit focused on providing services to youth in the city.
“I went through, and I think a lot of us have gone through, a period of mourning, frankly,” Benavides said. “To think that our country would reflect its true character and values by selecting somebody to be a president of this nation with those types of values, that type of character, or lack thereof, and divisive words and rhetoric.”
He added: “The other side has been so bold to spout out hatred and division. I think we need to be bold…and take the stance that this is a sanctuary city. This is a place where our community is safe and…we’re going to stand with them.”
Benavides and other council members vowed to join LA, New York, Chicago, Seattle, and other major cities in refusing to cooperate with deportations, despite Trump’s promise to cut off all federal funding to such "sanctuary cities."
“[These] are times when I think…the community looks to the leadership and they say, ‘Well, where are you? Do you stand with me, do you stand behind me, or are you gonna be facilitating these efforts to threaten and break up families?’ ” said Councilman Vicente Sarmiento.
“I met with the city manager and spoke with the police chief, and we’re going to continue to be a community that cares for our residents, no matter whether they’re undocumented or not.”
The council directed city staff to prepare a resolution on the issue for approval at the next council meeting, on Dec. 6.
The city now has to prepare for the possibility of losing millions of dollars in federal funds each year that pay for housing, transportation and police programs, Martinez said.
“I know that a lot of residents, our kids, our families…have fear and anxiety,” she said. “We need to stay in solidarity. We need to continue to keep on fighting and doing what we do here in Santa Ana, and that is to protect our families, that is to make sure that they feel safe.”
And after years of supporting the city’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house federal immigration detainees in the city jail, council majority members said Tuesday they want the contract terminated as soon as possible.
“We need to, as quickly as possible, end that contract, end that relationship with Homeland Security” and ICE, Benavides said of the contract, which is currently scheduled to be phased out over the next four years. “There’s no place for that type of arrangement” with the city of Santa Ana, he said.
Councilman Sal Tinajero directed City Manager David Cavazos to look into ending the contract. “We need to get out of the jail business,” Tinajero said, adding that the jail’s staff could be moved into other city positions so they don’t lose their jobs.
In contrast to his colleagues, Mayor Miguel Pulido was silent on the issue during Tuesday's meeting. The mayor has taken strong stands against illegal immigration in the past. When he first ran for City Council in 1986, Pulido sent out a letter describing “the problem of illegal aliens” as an “epidemic.”
“Our community can no longer tolerate the public nuisance that illegal aliens bring upon us. Loitering and drug related crimes are linked to our city’s illegal alien problem,” Pulido said in the letter.
And when he first ran for mayor in 1994, Pulido wrote that Proposition 187 – which banned unauthorized immigrants from receiving health care and public education – “does not go far enough.”
When it came time for Pulido to speak after his colleagues’ comments Tuesday, he didn’t mention immigration policy, instead offering general comments about the council working for a better future and the need to bring back gang and vice units to the police department.
“I believe we all love this city very, very much. I think it’s come a long way and it still has a long way to go,” Pulido said.
Allegations of Police Union Intimidation
Council majority members also took aim at the city police officers’ union, which dominated election spending this year in an effort to oust majority members and replace them with candidates backed by the union.
Tinajero led the charge, accusing the union’s president, Gerry Serrano, of trying to pressure the two council members who ran for re-election – Sarmiento and Roman Reyna – into firing the police chief.
“What I witnessed, I had never seen before: a police officers’ association president saying, ‘If you want me to support you, tell me you will fire the police chief…And we’re gonna spend $400,000 in this race,’ ” Tinajero said.
“That would’ve scared the daylights out of anybody whose sole purpose is to preserve their own self-interest. But these two men up here stood for [the public], and they said ‘we don’t operate that way. We are going to represent this city.’”
Sarmiento and Reyna faced an intense stream of ads during the election accusing them of misspending city funds and causing a spike in crime. Sarmiento was re-elected, while Reyna lost to Juan Villegas, a police union-backed candidate.
Asked for his response to the council’s comments, Serrano said "we look forward to working with all the council members towards a focused path for a brighter future for all the families and our youth in Santa Ana."
The union, which backed Pulido, fell just short in its attempt to gain a four-seat majority on the council, winning three seats.
Sarmiento reveled in pointing out that each member of the council majority is now termed out, meaning that for the next two years they will be free to govern aggressively.
“We’re not looking at consequences of a future race. That’s a very good thing, it’s a very liberating thing. But it’s a very dangerous thing to those that are trying to confine you,” he said.
Tinajero called for a shift to district-based elections, which would give candidates who aren’t backed by big-moneyed interests a better chance at winning.
“We as a society need to understand and spread the word that this is our city, and that we’re not gonna let special interests, and we’re not gonna let money, dictate our future,” he said.
Reyna, meanwhile, attributed a spike in shootings early this year to a “vacuum of leadership” caused by the FBI’s arrest of the area’s top gang leader. Shootings now are “not anywhere near” what they were in the first couple months of the year, he said.
“The lies that were said [in] this election – that I voted against hiring police officers, is a straight-out lie,” Reyna said.
He was referring to a police union-funded mailer claiming he and Sarmiento voted “AGAINST more neighborhood patrol cops and AGAINST adding more police officers” to Santa Ana’s anti-gang unit.
“I’m saddened that there’s a risk of all the hard work we did in accumulating our reserves, that will be gone in two to three years,” Reyna said, referring to Pulido’s pledge to dip into the city’s rainy-day reserves to fund more police.
He called on his council colleagues to continue their efforts to continue their “balanced approach” to fight crime by investing in both youth prevention programs and law enforcement.
“That is how we stop that cycle. That is how we break that cycle. If not, our community will always be in survival mode,” Reyna said.
- Protesters March Against Trump in Santa Ana
- Santa Ana Police Union Gains Influence After Hard-Fought Election
- Santa Ana Council Votes to Devote Entire Budget Surplus to Police
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that about half of Santa Ana residents are not citizens. According to the U.S. census, more than 40 percent of the city's adult residents are not citizens.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.