Dana Point, Laguna Niguel and Lake Forest this week became the latest cities in Orange County to take stands against the state’s sanctuary laws, adopting resolutions and filing briefs in support of the federal lawsuit against California.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) also announced it was filing a lawsuit against Los Alamitos, the first city in the state to adopt an ordinance in an attempt to exempt itself from one of the state’s sanctuary laws.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions March 7 said the Justice Department is suing California over three separate sanctuary laws. The Los Alamitos ordinance attempts to exempt the city from the law still referred to as state Senate Bill 54, which bans local law enforcement agencies from giving Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) the jail release information of undocumented prisoners.
Violent felonies are exempt from SB54 protections, including murder, arson, rape, homicide, robbery and various other serious felonies defined under state penal code.
The law went into effect this year, and so far the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said it transferred 168 people to ICE between Jan. 1 and March 19. Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun previously said 172 people, who otherwise would have been transferred to ICE, have been released back into the community during that time frame.
Voice of OC has requested updated numbers, along with what the people who were transferred to ICE were convicted of doing, but those numbers haven’t been provided yet.
Many city leaders who opposed the sanctuary law said their opposition wasn’t about immigration, but public safety. The issue has become partisan, often pitting Republicans against Democrats in demonstrations outside city halls and inside council chambers. So far, 11 of Orange County’s 34 cities and the county Board of Supervisors have taken positions against the state sanctuary laws.
In its own move to circumvent the state sanctuary law, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department March 26 started listing every inmate’s release date on its website, regardless of immigration status.
The three cities join Aliso Viejo, San Juan Capistrano, Fountain Valley, Newport Beach, Westminster, Orange and Yorba Linda in filing legal briefs against the state law. The Orange County Board of Supervisors also voted join the lawsuit March 27.
Huntington Beach voted April 2 to sue the state separately from the federal lawsuit.
Councilmembers adopted a resolution against the state law and voted to file a legal brief siding with the U.S. Justice Department in the lawsuit against the state. The council voted 3-2, with Councilwoman Debra Lewis and Councilman Paul Wyatt dissenting.
Like other city councils that voted in favor of filing briefs and similar resolutions, some Dana Point council members cited the oath of office they take when being sworn into their position.
“I swore an oath … to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” Mayor Pro Tem Joe Muller said.
He later reminded council members everyone on the council took the oath. “I can’t turn my back on our oath,” Muller said.
However, Councilwoman Debra Lewis said the council shouldn’t decide the legality of the law and asked City Attorney Patrick Munoz if there’s been a legal decision.
“Has SB54 been declared unconstitutional by any court in the United States?” Lewis asked.
“It has not, as far as I’m aware of,” Munoz answered.
“So if we’re going to uphold our oath … at this point, SB54 is the law of the state of California and it is constitutional,” Lewis said while sanctuary law opponents tried to interject their opposition to her comments from the audience.
“I’ve already warned you how many times? If the deputies see that you’re disrupting the meeting, they’re going to escort you out of here,” Mayor Richard Viczorek said after the outbursts.
Meanwhile, Muller countered Lewis’ comments and said, “It’s been brought up tonight that it’s a slippery slope when we start deciding what laws we’re going to follow and which laws we aren’t. The state of California already went down that slope … nor does the state of California have the right to preempt federal law.”
Chants of “USA!” filled the room after the vote and Vizorek had to recess the meeting.
The 2016 U.S. Census Bureau population estimates Dana Point has 34,009 residents including 2,138 non-citizens, or just over 6 percent. However, the estimate does not specify if the non-citizens are undocumented.
According to the Orange County Registrar of Voters, there are nearly 21,000 registered voters in Dana Point. Almost 45 percent are Republican, about 27 percent are Democrat and just over 23 percent are no party preference.
The Laguna Niguel City Council on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution against SB54 and unanimously voted to file a legal brief siding with the U.S. Justice Department in the lawsuit.
Unlike Dana Point’s meeting, Laguna Niguel didn’t see verbal clashes in the crowd or among council members.
“Your decorum is noted and is appreciated,” Mayor Pro Tem John Mark Jennings said.
He also leveled criticism at Sacramento lawmakers over SB54.
“The California legislature appears to want to score points with its voters,” Jennings said. “I view the issue here as rather being quite simple. California will be and is less safe, less secure.”
Like other cities, many of the people who spoke during public comment said adopting the resolution and filing the legal brief would make undocumented immigrants hesitant to report crimes to police.
“There’s simply no documented evidence that any illegal alien … has ever been deported for being a witness to a crime,” responded Councilwoman Laurie Davies.
Mayor Elaine Gennawey said the move isn’t an immigration issue, rather a public safety one. She alluded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“Our country learned a very tragic lesson 17 years ago about what could happen when agencies don’t communicate,” Gennawey said.
The Census Bureau estimates that nearly 65,000 people live in the city, including 4,252 noncitizens — a little over 6 percent. It doesn’t estimate how many are undocumented.
There are nearly 38,000 registered voters, according to the Registrar of Voters. Republicans hold the majority with nearly 43 percent, Democrats have almost 29 percent and no party preference hold over 23 percent of registered voters.
Lake Forest council members unanimously voted Tuesday to pass a resolution against the state law and to file a legal brief siding with the U.S. Justice Department.
Like nearly all other cities that voted in opposition of the sanctuary law, some city council members also cited their oath of office.
“We have a constitution to uphold,” Councilman Tom Cagley said. “I don’t think there’s any other discussion to be had here.”
Councilman Dwight Robinson said the state is overstepping its legal authority and surpassing federal law.
“We need to stand up and tell the state government that the federal government is the supreme law of the land,” Robinson said. “I concur with Councilman Cagley’s comments with respect to the oath.”
Councilman Scott Voigts said “America is still that shining city on the hill.”
Voigts, a former carpenter until a jobsite accident now requires him to use a wheelchair, said the move is about public safety and “giving every tool to our law enforcement.”
“I’m a former carpenter by trade,” Voigts said. “I know the hard working values of some of our immigrants.”
Lake Forest is home to over 80,000 people, according to U.S. Census estimates. Of that number, 9,198 are noncitizens, which is just over 11 percent. The census doesn’t estimate the number of undocumented residents.
The city has a little over 42,000 registered voters, according to the registrar. Republicans hold the majority at just over 40 percent, Democrats are just under 30 percent and no party preference voters hold a quarter of registered voters.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Lake Forest adopted an ordinance. The city council adopted a resolution, not an ordinance.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at [email protected]g.