Orange County Cities Are Revolting Against California’s Sanctuary State Law

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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The number of California cities pushing back against the state’s sanctuary law keeps growing, thanks in part to a groundswell of opposition originating in a single county in suburban Los Angeles.

At least 11 towns in Orange County have taken steps to officially oppose Senate Bill 54, the divisive law that sharply limits cooperation on immigration enforcement between California officials and the federal government.

Just as California has become a leader in the national resistance to President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda, the historically conservative Orange County is the vanguard of a counter-movement within the state. County officials say that, under Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic-controlled statehouse, California has subordinated public safety to immigration politics.

The opening salvo in the battle between Orange County and Sacramento was fired on March 19 by Los Alamitos, a city of about 12,000. In a 4-1 vote, the council agreed to exempt Los Alamitos from SB54 over concerns the law was forcing local officials to undermine federal law.

State legislators in Sacramento were “bullying local elected officials into violating our oath of office,” council member Warren Kusumoto said at the time.

Though it is Orange County’s smallest city, Los Alamitos proved to be a bellwether for other jurisdictions in the county.

Following the city council vote, the Orange County Sheriff announced his office would publicize the release dates of jail inmates. The move was aimed at helping immigration agents take removable criminal aliens into custody after they serve local jail time, a rebuke to the provision of SB54 that limits communication between local officials and immigration authorities.

Days later, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to join the Trump administration’s lawsuit challenging California’s sanctuary policies. Echoing the Los Alamitos council, county legislators said SB54 had inverted the supremacy of federal law over state law.

“We cannot let the state begin cherry-picking which federal laws it decides to follow,” Supervisor Michelle Steel said in a statement. “As supervisors of this county, we all took oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and bear true faith and allegiance to it against all enemies.”

The Board of Supervisors vote inspired a flurry of similar actions across the county. From late March to the second week in April, six other cities — Huntington Beach, Mission Viejo, Yorba Linda, Aliso Viejo, Fountain Valley and San Juan Capistrano — passed resolutions to either opt out of SB54 or join the federal lawsuit against California, according to the Orange County Register.

Although it broke 50-45 for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Orange County is something of a conservative enclave in deep-blue California. It has a history of advocacy for strict enforcement of immigration law, most notably as the epicenter of support for Proposition 187. Passed in 1994, the controversial ballot initiative would have barred illegal immigrants from using a wide range of public services in California but was struck down by a federal district court.

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Some activists attribute the groundswell of opposition to SB54 to anti-immigrant animus among Orange County’s relatively conservative residents. Erik Garcia, a community organizer with Orange County Immigrant Youth United, says the county’s opposition to SB54 puts it “on the wrong side of history.”

“Let’s be very clear. Opposition to California being a Sanctuary State is not about public safety, nor has it ever been,” Garcia wrote Monday in a column for the OC Weekly. “This is about pushing a political agenda that endorses hate.”

But many Orange County officials say their opposition to California’s sanctuary state laws is a matter of public safety, not prejudice. They have pointed to the county’s history as a destination for legal immigrants from Asia and the shifting demographic profile of its population, which is now less than half white.

“This is not an immigrant issue. We’re all immigrants in this country,” Newport Beach Councilman Scott Peotter said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “It is really (about) our police force being able to effectively fight criminals and coordinate with other agencies that do the same.”

The Newport Beach City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing SB54 Tuesday and said it would consider filing an amicus brief in support of the Trump administration’s lawsuit. The next day, Westminster became the 11th jurisdiction in Orange County to come out in opposition to SB54, with the city council voting 3-1 to join a Huntington Beach lawsuit against the state.

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