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Orange, Newport Beach and Westminster this week joined the county of Orange and seven other cities in opposing California’s sanctuary state law, which limits state and local law enforcement’s communications with federal immigration authorities and prohibits officers from holding and questioning people based on immigration violations.
The Newport Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to file a court brief in support of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against the California law, known as Senate Bill 54 or the California Values Act. The same night, the Orange City Council voted 3-2 to pass a resolution opposing the law.
The debate came to Westminster on Wednesday, where at least 45 percent of residents are foreign-born, according to 2016 U.S. Census figures. Three members of the city council are Vietnamese American and one member, Sergio Contreras, is the son of Mexican American immigrants. Councilwoman Margie Rice requested the vote.
The Westminster City Council voted 3-1 to sign onto a court brief by the city of Huntington Beach supporting the federal lawsuit, with Contreras voting no and Councilwoman Kimberly Ho absent.
The contentious meeting attracted nearly 200 people, including Westminster residents and a familiar crowd of activists, on both sides, who have traveled council-to-council debating the sanctuary state law. Outside the chambers and during the meeting, activists shouted, argued and taunted each other, prompting Mayor Tri Ta to call for order repeatedly throughout the meeting.
Ta framed the issue as one of fairness, pointing to his own experience immigrating to the United States from Vietnam in 1992 at the age of 19. His uncle, an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, came to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975 with help from the U.S. government and completed paperwork to sponsor his family in 1980.
“At the time, my family and I were still in Vietnam. And we got an interview with the U.S. Department staff in 1990 — in 1990,” Ta said. “And after we interviewed in 1990, we finally arrived in the U.S. on May 5, 1992.”
He also directed his comments at a group of public speakers, many of them young Vietnamese Americans who cited their parents’ tumultuous immigration experiences as their reason for supporting the sanctuary state law.
“Vietnamese immigrants, we all came here, the majority of the Vietnamese came here as political refugees because…we lost our country,” Ta, a Republican, said. “However, we all came here legally, with a process.”
Republican Councilman Tyler Diep, who is running for State Assembly District 72, noted his own background as an immigrant and “a child who used to be a recipient of welfare.”
He pointed to a statement by the California State Sheriffs’ Association which raised concerns about “the release of wanted, undocumented criminals from our jails, including known gang members, repeat drunk drivers…and other serious offenders.”
“Don’t ask, should or should we not support illegal immigration. Ask yourself, do you want your family to live in the same community and neighborhood as those who broke our laws?” Diep said.
Ta pushed back at those who called the vote anti-immigrant.
“We are not anti-immigrant because I am an immigrant myself,” Ta said. “We going to vote tonight and my vote may be unpopular to some of you, but I have to stand for what I believe.”
Supporters of the sanctuary law say it preserves trust between local government and immigrant communities that may fear deportation, during a time of heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric and increased activity by federal immigration authorities.
Jacqueline Dan, an attorney at the University of California, Irvine, said her U.S. citizen parents were pulled over five times, including by the border patrol, on a drive from Texas to California to attend her law school graduation.
“That matters in a city where nearly half the population is Vietnamese and more than 20 percent is Latino,” Dan said. “We need all victims to testify in your courthouse and cooperate with police without fear of deportation.”
Many of the supporters of the sanctuary state law directed their comments to the Vietnamese American members of the city council.
“Today you consider defying the state law that ensures the safety of your very own constituents — the undocumented people you seek to persecute, they are our very own Vietnamese people,” said Julie Vo. “Tonight is your opportunity to support sanctuary…and prove you’re not just about votes and dollars.”
Anita Rice, a city Planning Commissioner and daughter of councilwoman Margie Rice, said the issue is “not about race, and it’s not about hate.”
“The laws of the land are, we are to follow the constitution. If you cannot do that, and you cannot get your paperwork…you need to become a citizen or you need to get out of my country,” Rice said. “There are people in the audience who say their parents have been here ten, twenty, thirty years. Well then, my god, what’s the problem? Get your citizenship.”
Ethan Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who came to the United States in 1991, compared the situation to Mendez vs. Westminster, a 1947 federal court case in which Mexican American families in Westminster successfully sued to desegregate Orange County Schools.
“Sometimes the law is unjust. Sometimes you have to challenge the law to help the community at large,” Nguyen said.
Khue Bui, whose father was jailed for two years after a failed attempt to flee Vietnam, noted fleeing the country after the Vietnam War was illegal under the Communist government.
“Twenty plus years later, I have the fortune of coming here in what many of you might call the ‘right way…’ but thousands of others had no choice,” Bui said. “They came here and they didn’t wait for papers, while…people sitting in rooms exactly like this one were deciding whether to take them in or let them die.”
The majority of unauthorized immigrants in the United States are from Mexico and Central America, 71 percent. Asian immigrants make up the third-largest group at 14 percent of the illegal population, according to a 2015 report from the Migration Policy Institute.
In 2013, there were an estimated 116,000 Vietnamese unauthorized immigrants in the United States, according to the same study.
Special federal laws and agreements paved the way for immigrants from Vietnam and Cambodia to come to the United States after the Vietnam War and to protect refugees. The 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Act gave refugees a special migration status and financial assistance.
A 2008 agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam allows Vietnamese immigrants who arrived before 1995 to stay despite deportation orders, an agreement meant to protect war refugees, although Ted Osius, the former U.S. ambassador to Hanoi, told Reuters Wednesday that some of those immigrants are now being deported despite the treaty.
The wave of opposition against the sanctuary state law in Orange County has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump, who said in a March 28 tweet that his “Administration stands in solidarity with the brave citizens in Orange County defending their rights against California’s illegal and unconstitutional Sanctuary policies.”
Trump’s tweet came just after the county Board of Supervisors voted to join the federal lawsuit against California, and two days after the Sheriff’s Department announced it will make inmate release dates public on their website to make it easier for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track down criminal unauthorized immigrants.
The Santa Ana City Council voted last year to become a sanctuary city while the Fullerton City Council last week discussed joining the Justice Department lawsuit, but decided to do nothing.
Opponents of the sanctuary state law say it reduces public safety because it prohibits local law enforcement agencies from communicating inmate information to federal immigration authorities. If the police could notify ICE about inmates before they are released, those criminals would be transferred directly to ICE rather than being released to the streets, they say.
The law, however, doesn’t bar law enforcement from contacting ICE about undocumented immigrants convicted of serious or violent felonies like murder, manslaughter, robbery, rape, arson, and burglary.
Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said while the department has transferred 168 serious criminals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement between January and March 19, it has released 172 unauthorized immigrants with criminal charges back into the community whose crimes don’t fall under an exemption.
Those crimes included domestic violence, burglary and driving under the influence charges, Braun said, although she did not have a breakdown of criminal charges for all 172 immigrants.
Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), who authored SB54, told the Westminster Council that “the genesis behind the measure is very simple…[to] not allow local resources to be used to enforce federal laws.”
De Leon, who is running for the Senate against incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said the law still allows law enforcement to work with ICE to apprehend the most serious offenders.
“If you are a criminal violent felon, all local police officers…all municipalities can collaborate with ICE agents,” De Leon said, before his two minutes of speaking time expired. As he left the chambers, several people shouted “bye!” at De Leon.
Contreras, the only member to vote against the action, did not give his opinion of SB54 but said it is a waste of money for the city to engage the issue rather than focusing on city services.
After the vote, many of the activists opposing SB54 chanted around the council chambers. “USA, USA.”