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Trump throws his support behind Orange County in its war against the California sanctuary law

  • President Donald Trump on Wednesday offered support to California's Orange County after it pushed back on the state's so-called sanctuary law.
  • California's third-most populous county condemned the sanctuary law and is joining the U.S. government's lawsuit against the Golden State.
  • Orange County's sheriff also moved this week to essentially skirt the controversial sanctuary law.
People opposing sanctuary state at the Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting on March 27, 2018 in Santa Ana, California.
Irfan Khan | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
People opposing sanctuary state at the Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting on March 27, 2018 in Santa Ana, California.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday ratcheted up the pressure against a California law aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants by giving a shoutout to the state's third-most populous county after it pushed back on the controversial policies.

"My Administration stands in solidarity with the brave citizens in Orange County defending their rights against California's illegal and unconstitutional Sanctuary policies," Trump tweeted. He added that laws on the books let California "release known dangerous criminals into communities across the State. All citizens have the right to be protected by Federal law and strong borders."

The president's broadside follows the all-Republican board of supervisors for Orange County — home to about 3 million residents and Disneyland — voting 4-0 on Tuesday to direct the county counsel to join the U.S. attorney general's sanctuary lawsuit against California. The board hopes the federal court will issue a restraining order against the state to halt enforcement of the law.

Also, the board of supervisors voted to condemn the state's sanctuary law in a largely symbolic stand, and the county sheriff moved this week to start assisting the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE.

"We're not talking here about law-abiding immigrants, we're talking about criminal aliens," said Michelle Park Steel, the supervisor who introduced the measure condemning the sanctuary law.

Conservative bastion

Despite its long history of being a conservative bastion in the southern part of the state, Trump actually lost California's Orange County in the 2016 presidential election. There are cities within Orange County that have undergone significant demographic change in the past decade due to more ethnic diversity and immigration, and Hillary Clinton, who won the state, was the first Democrat to win the county since 1936.

Regardless, political observers say Orange County's actions this week highlight how some communities in the state are growing weary of the sanctuary law, or state Senate Bill 54, which bars state and local law enforcement officers from asking about the immigration status of people during routine interactions or participating in federal enforcement actions.

In a statement, Orange County's Steel said: "Senate Bill 54 poses a real threat to our local communities as it cripples our law enforcement from working with federal authorities to identify dangerous criminals in our communities. The county voted to condemn the state sanctuary law and direct county counsel to take legal action including intervening in the case of the United States v. California."

Critics of the state sanctuary law say it jeopardizes public safety and puts law enforcement officers in the state in a tough spot. They also say it can increase the danger down the line for federal immigration agents.

'Law and order' issue

"With the action Tuesday, Orange County conclusively is stating that it will not participate in the illegal and unconstitutional sanctuary state," said state Assembly member Travis Allen, a Republican candidate for governor whose district includes Orange County. "This is great news for every Californian who believes in the rule of law and the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution."

Previously, four other counties in the Golden State — Tehama, Kern, Siskiyou and Shasta — passed nonsanctuary resolutions.

Also, the City Council of Los Alamitos, a small city in Orange County, last week voted to opt out of the sanctuary law, and more than a dozen other cities in California are considering taking similar actions.

"When you've got Orange County that represents 3 million people doing this, I think it's a pretty strong message," said Troy Edgar, mayor of Los Alamitos. "I've been talking to a lot of mayors and city council members up and down California, and I'm just praying that they'll find the conviction and be able to follow suit."

Dubbed the "California Values Act," SB 54 bars local jails from detaining undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of a crime past their normal release time at the request of federal agents.

Members of the immigrant removal task force of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during an early morning raid to arrest and deport immigrants who have notices of deportation.
J. Emilio Flores | Corbis | Getty Images
Members of the immigrant removal task force of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during an early morning raid to arrest and deport immigrants who have notices of deportation.

Some police also complain it puts restrictions on their ability to communicate concerns with federal law enforcement authorities about certain undocumented offenders being released on the street.

"You can kind of paint this as kind of a 'law and order' issue that you don't have to necessarily tie it to Trump," said Rob Robinson, assistant professor in political science at California State University-Fullerton. "It's just that view that 'we should obey the law' or maybe some people see the state as going too far, and so this is kind of pushing back on that."

That said, Robinson indicated there certainly is "a core of conservative Republicans in the state that very much likes Trump and very much likes his brand of conservatism."

"Our duty always has to be first and foremost to the citizens," said Shawn Nelson, an Orange County supervisor who proposed joining the federal complaint against California.

Federal case against California

The case against California is being heard by Magistrate Judge Kendall Newman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in Sacramento. Despite objections from the Justice Department, Newman last week ordered the acting director of the federal ICE agency, Thomas Holman, to testify no later than April 13 in the case at the request of California.

In filing the original lawsuit March 6, the Justice Department also included an accompanying motion for preliminary injunction that could be decided in a matter of months, according to legal experts. Legal experts say the side that ultimately loses will get the ability to file an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, even as the rest of the case moves forward with the lower District Court. There's also a possibility the case could ultimately find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and then take years to resolve.

In all, the U.S. government's suit against the state of California centers on three laws — all of which the Trump administration claims "intentionally obstruct and discriminate against the enforcement of federal immigration law."

Legal ramifications

Having one of California's biggest counties part of the Trump administration lawsuit and the resistance to the sanctuary legislation may not make a significant difference in the case's outcome, legal experts say. But it could provide a symbolic boost to supporters of the resistance movement — and Trump's tweets on the controversy also could help the anti-sanctuary effort.

"This case will turn on whether the federal government can essentially compel the state to have its state and local officers participate in immigration enforcement and whether the federal government can prove the harm that it's alleging in the lawsuit," said Annie Lai, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of California-Irvine.

"As a general matter, California does have powers to govern within its own state — and the laws that are at issue were kind of carefully crafted to kind of be expressions of California's local power," Lai added.

In any event, she said there's also an issue of whether localities can be "opting out of state law. I think it's quite clear that until a court makes a ruling and somehow invalidates parts of California law, that California law is the 'law of the land.'"

At the same time, she said another issue "is a sense that there's a conflict between honoring and following the federal Constitution and federal law and state law." But she called that essentially "a red herring," and made the case there's no federal law that says cities or counties must have their local police officers dedicated to federal immigration enforcement.

The immigration battleground

Meanwhile, the Orange County Sheriff's office announced this week it will make publicly available the inmate names and release dates through an online database, regardless of the released person's immigration status. The sheriff also directed staff to respond to requests from ICE for any serious offender criminals who are on the inmate release list.

"SB 54 makes local law enforcement's job more difficult and requires bureaucratic processes that could allow dangerous individuals to fall through the cracks of our justice system," Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said in a statement. "My department, however, remains committed to cooperating fully with federal authorities in all areas where I have discretion to remove serious criminals from our community."

California's attorney general, Xavier Becerra, pushed back against criticism of the law.

"We're not going to let the Trump administration coerce us into doing the federal government's job of enforcing federal immigration law. We're in the business of public safety, not deportation," Becerra said in a statement Wednesday.

The state attorney general also released new "guidance" for California's public safety authorities under SB 54. Among other things, it lays out how local police agencies can provide inmate release information to immigration authorities and what is needed to stay in compliance with the state law.

Kevin de Leon, who introduced SB 54 legislation last year and was until last week the Democratic leader of the state Senate, lashed out at Orange County's vote Tuesday to side with Trump's lawsuit against California.

"The county that gave us Prop 187 more than two decades ago is at it again with another unconstitutional attack on our immigrant communities," said de Leon, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, also a Democrat, in a primary. "I am confident the courts will reject this challenge to SB 54, just as they roundly rejected Prop 187."

Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative championed by prominent state Republicans and passed by voters, was a ban on most social services to undocumented immigrants. Eventually, courts ruled that it was unconstitutional, but it still is considered a polarizing issue that some blame for hurting the state's GOP support among Latinos.

The Orange County moves are part of a backlash against sanctuary laws in traditionally Republican areas of the country.

On Monday, the Texas attorney general weighed in as part of a coalition of 18 Republican-led states filing a so-called friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Trump administration's case against California's sanctuary law.

"Dangerous sanctuary policies like California undermine the rule of law and endanger good law enforcement officers and the communities that need their protection the most," said Ken Paxton, the Republican attorney general of Texas.

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