Cities across Orange County have taken positions on California’s sanctuary laws since Los Alamitos passed an ordinance last month in an attempt to exempt itself from the requirements.
Los Alamitos’ move came after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions March 7 announced a lawsuit against the state over three laws which make up sanctuary policies. In the weeks after Los Alamitos passed its ordinance March 19, the county Board of Supervisors, Mission Viejo, Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Yorba Linda and Aliso Viejo took stands against one of the laws, the California Values Act (Senate Bill 54).
Santa Ana, which declared itself a sanctuary city last year, and Fullerton went in different directions. The Santa Ana city council voted to file a court brief supporting the state laws and Fullerton, while initially considering siding with the U.S. Department of Justice against the state law, instead voted to do nothing.
Huntington Beach became the first Orange County city that voted to file a lawsuit separate from the DOJ’s against the state for SB54 requirements. State Attorney General Xavier Becerra also is expected to be named in the suit.
Nearly all of the arguments centered around SB54. The city councils that opposed it and the county supervisors allege the law reduces public safety because it prohibits local law enforcement agencies from communicating inmate information to federal immigration authorities.
Many local leaders allege undocumented immigrants convicted of violent crimes will be released into the streets after finishing their sentences. If the police could notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), many leaders said it would prevent threats to safety and instead the inmates would be transferred directly to ICE.
But there are exemptions on who the law protects. SB54 doesn’t bar law enforcement agencies contacting ICE about undocumented immigrants convicted of violent felonies, including murder, manslaughter, robbery, rape, arson, burglary and other serious or violent felony convictions.
In a move to circumvent state law, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department March 26 started listing every inmate’s release date on its website, regardless of immigration status.
The City Council voted 6-1 Monday to move forward with a lawsuit on what it says is “constitutional overreach” by SB54 that violates the state constitution.
“The city suit would not be the same as the federal suit,” City Attorney Michael Gates said at the meeting. “The gravamen of the city’s complaint … is the way the law’s (SB54) written, it overreaches.”
Huntington Beach is a charter city and Gates is an elected city attorney. At the meeting, council members said the lawsuit shouldn’t cost the taxpayers any additional money since they can handle it “in house.”
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) spoke about the dangers he sees in SB54.
“SB54 will attract even more criminals into the state,” Rohrabacher told the council. “I would suggest that those who are advocating sanctuary cities or sanctuary state are betraying the American People.”
Rohrabacher represents the 48th Congressional District, which includes Huntington Beach. Election handicappers have classified his re-election as a toss-up and expect the 15-term Congressman to face a tough battle at the polls this year.
“SB54 reduced and eliminated our ability to converse with the federal government … which disallowed us to turn over criminals to immigration,” Undersheriff Don Barnes told the council. Barnes is running for Sheriff against Aliso Viejo Mayor Dave Harrington, a former sheriff’s sergeant.
Huntington Beach Councilwoman Jill Hardy was the lone dissenting vote.
“This is about local control and saying something when the state goes too far,” Hardy said. “I’m also very concerned about the message that tonight sends though,” she added, referring to comments made during the meeting and the message taking such a stance can send.
Chants of “USA!” filled the chambers after the vote.
Huntington Beach is home to just under 200,000 people, according to the Census Bureau estimate. Just over 6 percent, 12,875, are noncitizens, according to the estimate.
The City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting “the rule of law,” and it voted 4-1 to file a court brief in the DOJ lawsuit, siding with federal authorities.
Rohrabacher attended Wednesday’s council meeting and echoed what he told Huntington Beach. Like Huntington Beach, Aliso Viejo is in the 48th district.
“This outrageous act of the California government shreds the U.S. Constitution,” Rohrabacher said.
Harrington said it’s not about immigration, but public safety.
“These policies make us less safe. Period. To me it’s almost inarguable,” Harrington said. “I’ll tell you what, ‘if you’re a criminal, I don’t want you out on the street at all — I don’t care where you’re from.’”
He took issue with charges of racism leveled at him and the council during public comment.
“You want to talk about diversity? Come to my house. I have three black kids at my house,” Harrington said. “I love those kids like crazy and they’re the reason I do what I do. It’s amazing — the tapestry in my house.”
Mayor Pro Tem Ross Chun was the dissenting vote on filing the brief.
“Do we have any way of knowing, because this has been said so many times this is a public safety issue … do we have records or information that this is a public safety issue?” Chun asked.
Staff and the city attorney couldn’t answer Chun’s question. He also reminded the council of the felony exemptions in SB54.
Just over 50,000 people call Aliso Viejo home. About seven percent of the population are noncitizens — 3,375, according to the Census Bureau estimate.
Moving in the opposite direction of other cities, the heavily-immigrant city of Santa Ana plans to file a court brief supporting the California side of the sanctuary state lawsuit, after a 5-1 vote by the council Tuesday.
“In order for our community to be safe, there needs to be very positive and strong police-community relations. And this idea of, in essence, deputizing local law enforcement to do the work of the federal government, breaks down the trust,” said Councilman David Benavides.
The dissenting vote was Councilman Juan Villegas, the council’s only member who belongs to no political party. He didn’t speak about the proposal during the discussion.
Santa Ana, which is the second most-populous city in Orange County, has 334,000 people and a large unauthorized immigrant population. Precise figures aren’t available, but the U.S. Census estimated 30 percent of the city’s residents are noncitizens, whether in the country legally or not.
Santa Ana also is the second-most Latino-populated city in the United States with a population of over 250,000, after El Paso, Texas.
Over 130 people spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, but unlike Huntington Beach, which had a similar number of speakers, the majority of Fullerton speakers were against the city filing a court brief siding with the DOJ.
The council voted 3-1-1 Tuesday to receive and file the item, with Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald voting no and Councilman Bruce Whitaker abstaining.
“SB54 usurps federal ability to detain perpetrators of serious crimes and I’m not going to show hospitality to perpetrators of serious crimes,” Fitzgerald said. She also said the 2014 ballot Proposition 47 lowered many felonies to misdemeanors, which puts those convictions outside of SB54’s felony exemptions.
Councilman Jesus Silva, the only Latino on the council and a school teacher, said some of his students have expressed concern for their families over the proposal which reminded him of their concerns during the 2016 election campaigns when the rhetoric by some candidates caused students to cry.
“This is to be decided in court. The DOJ is suing California. I think we need to stay out of that. There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Silva said. “We need to support our residents here and a lot of them live on the southside of Commonwealth (Avenue).”
South of Commonwealth Avenue is where the concentration of Latinos live in Fullerton.
The city is home to just over 139,000 people, while over 16 percent of the population are noncitizens, according to the Census Bureau estimate.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Santa Ana Councilman Juan Villegas as a Republican. He formerly was a Republican but now belongs to no political party.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Voice of OC reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story.