It’s Official, Santa Ana Is Orange County’s First Sanctuary City

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

The crowd erupts into cheers after Santa Ana council members declare the city a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

Santa Ana on Tuesday became the first city in Orange County to officially declare itself a sanctuary for unauthorized immigrants, with the City Council vowing to stand up for families fearful of being separated by deportations when President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month.

After dozens of residents and activists spoke in favor of the move at the council’s regular meeting, the council members unanimously adopted a resolution declaring Santa Ana “a sanctuary for all its residents, regardless of their immigration status.” With some exceptions, the resolution says city police, staff and resources will not be used to assist deportations.

The vote was 5-0, with Mayor Miguel Pulido and Councilwoman Michele Martinez absent.

Speaking from the dais to a packed chamber, Councilman Sal Tinajero said council members “are resolved to make sure that the message is loud and clear to our community that you will be protected, and this is a safe haven in the city of Santa Ana. Because all we are is hard working people who want our kids to have a better life. What is un-American about that?”

The council also took major steps toward ending the city’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house federal immigration detainees in the city jail. They ordered that the number of detainees be reduced from about 150 currently to a new maximum of 128 people, and approved a process to study how the city could re-use the jail for a different purpose.

“We are interested in eliminating that contract as soon as possible,” said Councilman David Benavides.

It was a major shift from just a few months ago, when the council considered an increase from 200 to 300 detainees, but backed off after a backlash from activists. The contract brings in millions of dollars in revenue to the city, which officials say will have to be replaced when the contract ends.

The actions Tuesday were cheered by the crowd, which filled the 200-person council chambers and spilled into the Civic Center. People “are afraid because a discourse of hate has given permission to a bunch of people in this nation to continue harassing and dividing our families,” said America Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access, in a passionate speech to council members.

At the same time, she said, the turnout showed that people “are ready to fight, today and tomorrow.”

She was one of about 50 people who spoke in favor of the sanctuary city proposal; no one spoke in opposition.

Some of the speakers were young U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents, while one woman, UC Irvine lecturer Tina Shull, wore a t-shirt that asked “Who Would Jesus Deport?”

The speakers ended up convincing the council to adopt an even stronger sanctuary city policy than what was originally proposed. The added elements include a promise to turn the non-binding sanctuary resolution into law through an ordinance, and a guarantee of a committee of community members to monitor the city’s compliance with its sanctuary policy.

Trump made a harsh stance on immigration the centerpiece of his campaign for president, saying this about unauthorized Mexican immigrants when he announced his candidacy: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."

He has softened his tone since the election, but continues to pledge a significant increase in deportations.

In making the sanctuary declaration, Santa Ana joined many other cities across the country, including Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco that have made strong public pronouncements in favor of protecting immigrants since Trump’s election.

Trump has responded by vowing to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities. Some have estimated that Santa Ana stands to lose over $120 million in federal grants if Trump is able to make good on his threats.

UC Irvine School of Law professor Annie Lai disputed such characterizations, saying efforts to block federal funding are limited under the 10th Amendment, which she said would protect federal grants unrelated to immigration enforcement.

The federal government “does not have the power to commandeer state or local officials” to enforce federal immigration policy, Lai said.

Council members also criticized Pulido – who in the past has called “the problem of illegal aliens” an “epidemic” – for being absent Tuesday.

“He always does this when there’s [these] very pressing issues at hand,” Tinajero said. In a rare move, the council refused to excuse the mayor’s absence from the meeting.

“I’m tired of having a mayor who breaks the law constantly, pays his fine to the [Fair Political Practices Commission], and says ‘Hey, I still got what I wanted,” Tinajero added. “Those kinds of leaders we need to remove as a community.”

He also warned residents that they need to stay active and engaged to protect the sanctuary effort, with two of the current council majority members – Angie Amezcua and Roman Reyna – being replaced next Tuesday by two new members – Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas – whose campaigns were funded heavily by the city’s police union.

“I hope that you hold those other council members that are gonna come here - you hold their feet to the fire,” Tinajero said, leaning into the microphone and deepening his voice, “because they’re Latino too.”

The audience erupted into applause. He continued: “Let’s see if that immigrant spirit that they talk about [on] the campaign trails translates to a vote up here.”

Activists now plan to pursue sanctuary policies in other Orange County cities, including the county’s largest, Anaheim.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.