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Los Alamitos wants nothing to do with California's 'sanctuary state' laws. Will it start a new resistance?

Supporters of the Los Alamitos City Council vote to oppose California's sanctuary state law celebrate. (Video by Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

With about 12,000 residents spread across a few miles of suburban Southern California, Los Alamitos is better known for its good schools and small-town charms than political activism.

But the city now finds itself at the center of a rebellion against California's "sanctuary" policies, which aim to protect immigrants here illegally as President Trump vows to ramp up deportations.

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Los Alamitos leaders on Monday approved an ordinance that exempts their Orange County municipality from Senate Bill 54, a law that took effect Jan. 1 and restricts local law enforcement's cooperation with federal immigration authorities. It marks a rare effort by a city to challenge the sanctuary movement, which has wide support among elected officials in left-leaning California.

Many cities have faced the ire of Trump and his administration for policies they say are too lenient toward those here illegally. The president slammed San Francisco over its sanctuary law, which he said had allowed a Mexican national who fatally shot a tourist to remain on the streets. And Oakland's mayor is now the subject of a federal investigation after she sent out an alert warning residents of an immigration sweep.

Spectators cheer as the Los Alamitos City Council votes to oppose California's sanctuary state law. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Spectators cheer as the Los Alamitos City Council votes to oppose California's sanctuary state law. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times) (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Los Alamitos, by contrast, is moving in a different direction, with some residents and officials saying they want nothing to do with those policies.

About 160 people showed up to Monday's regular City Council meeting, a monthly event that rarely draws enough people to fill the 40-seat chamber. Speakers lined up late into the evening to address elected officials, who eventually voted 4 to 1 to approve the ordinance.

"Sometimes things are bigger than we are," said Mayor Troy D. Edgar.

Cheers erupted inside the chamber after the vote, with some shouting "Patriots!" and "This is a win for America!" as others waved pro-Trump flags.

Councilman Mark A. Chirco was the sole dissenter, suggesting the initiative could expose the city to litigation.

"We disagree with Sacramento on a lot of things. Are we not going to follow state law every time we disagree with them?" he said. "I don't think that would be prudent."

It's unclear how the ordinance will be implemented, and Mayor Pro Tem Warren Kusumoto, who proposed the initiative, said it may end up being largely symbolic.

"Is it going to hold up? I don't know," he said.

An overflow crowd watch and listen from the patio outside Los Alamitos City Hall as council members hear public comment regarding the California's "sanctuary state" laws.
An overflow crowd watch and listen from the patio outside Los Alamitos City Hall as council members hear public comment regarding the California's "sanctuary state" laws. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Among those who attended the meeting was Moti Cohen, a Garden Grove resident whose wife grew up in Los Alamitos, and who supports the anti-sanctuary measure.

Cohen, an immigrant from Israel, said he came to the U.S. legally and that everyone else should, too. He arrived 27 years ago with a tourist visa and became a legal resident after marrying his U.S. citizen wife.

"The law is the law and has to be enforced all over the country," he said. "The country is a law-and-order country and you have to come here legally."

Tara Farajian, a 43-year-old resident of neighboring Rossmoor, called the proposed measure heartbreaking.

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She moved from San Francisco to Los Alamitos in 2001 before relocating to Rossmoor two years later and was bracing herself for a more conservative community.

She's seen a bumper sticker saying "Show me your birth certificate" on a neighbor's car and says some in her town are "extremely right-wing." Still, she said the community is overall inviting and found the council's move shocking.

"It's almost like they want to create a police city," she said.

Supporters of the Los Alamitos City Council vote to oppose California's sanctuary state law celebrate. (Video by Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Critics in Los Alamitos take issue with SB 54, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed after the Legislature passed it last year. It prohibits state and local police agencies from notifying federal officials in many cases when immigrants potentially subject to deportation are about to be released from custody.

The initiative is in addition to sanctuary city laws passed by numerous communities and other state laws that protect those without legal residency, including one that makes it crime for business owners to voluntarily help federal agents find and detain unauthorized workers and another that creates a state inspection program for federal immigration detention centers.

The Trump administration went to federal court earlier to invalidate the state laws, claiming they blatantly obstruct federal immigration law and thus violate the Constitution's supremacy clause, which gives federal law precedence over state measures. That case is pending. Los Alamitos leaders voted Monday to file an amicus brief to the Justice Department's lawsuit.

Orange County, once a conservative stronghold, voted for a Democrat for president in 2016 for the first time since the Great Depression, backing Hillary Clinton over Trump. But parts of the county remain solidly Republican.

Some precincts in the Los Alamitos area supported Trump in 2016 while others backed Clinton, data show. Overall, nearly 44% of voters in Los Alamitos backed Trump, while almost 46% backed Clinton, according to data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at UC Irvine, said he's not surprised by Los Alamitos' stance given its demographics — the city is more white and slightly more affluent than Orange County as a whole.

It's 71% white, whereas Orange County as a whole is 61% white, according to 2010 census data. More recent data suggest the white population in Los Alamitos has slightly decreased.

"It's going to take a while to see dramatic change in that kind of a community," DeSipio said.

Though California is deep blue overall, there remain many pockets that support Trump and his hard-line stance on illegal immigration. Last month, the Shasta County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution saying the county is not a sanctuary jurisdiction.

Paul Scott, left, and John Rodriguez argue over immigration policy before a Los Alamitos City Council meeting discussing it's proposal to oppose California's sanctuary state law.
Paul Scott, left, and John Rodriguez argue over immigration policy before a Los Alamitos City Council meeting discussing it's proposal to oppose California's sanctuary state law. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But similar efforts to denounce sanctuary policies have failed, including efforts in Costa Mesa to publicly oppose SB 54 and in Kern County, where the governing board did oppose the bill but stopped short of calling its jurisdiction a non-sanctuary county.

Some immigration enforcement hawks hope Los Alamitos will be a bellwether.

"Perhaps it could be the leader. We are heartened that body politics is taking an action that supports federal laws," said Robin Hvidston, executive director of We the People Rising, a Claremont organization that lobbies for stricter immigration enforcement.

Hvidston said she hopes that if Los Alamitos and other cities stand against the sanctuary laws, the U.S. Department of Justice will step in to help.

"We're just calling on the federal government to stand up on behalf of the city," she said.

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Though few cities have considered what Los Alamitos has done, there have been divisions over sanctuary laws. Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, along with other California sheriffs, spoke out in opposition to SB 54.

Orange County gave birth to Proposition 187, and Costa Mesa passed anti-day laborer ordinances and became the epicenter of the anti-illegal immigration movement during the mid-2000s.

Since then, however, much of the county's fervent immigration enforcement bent has melted away after many of its cities experienced an influx of Latino and Asian immigrants.

Pam Rozolis, who has lived in Los Alamitos for more than 48 years, called the exemption proposal a "politically charged move which does not reflect all the Los Alamitos residents."

Rozolis said she was concerned that the measure could lead to litigation and a waste of taxpayer money in defending it.

"Our immigrants should not have to live in fear," she said. "It would be a step back to inhumane laws and practices."

On the streets of Los Alamitos, opinion was divided.

Mary Hanes, a 61-year-old retail clerk having lunch at Katella Bakery & Deli, said the city is being "bullied to get with the program."

"Like I say to my kids: 'Always say no to bullies,' " she said, adding that she plans to raise the issue with members of her gardening circle. "I totally support this, 110%. We are living in America in a moment of diversity, and part of that diversity means we do whatever we think is best. There's no need to be a follower."

But Dan Harold, a retired teacher in Los Alamitos, said he firmly disagrees with where his hometown is heading.

"Why step over the lines of state government to make more trouble when California already has so much to deal with? Frankly, I'm more concerned about earthquake safety than I am about politics," he said. "Politics only causes more trouble when what we really should focus on is making our buildings safer."

UPDATES:

11:15 p.m.: This article was updated with quotes from City Council members.

This article was originally published at 9:55 p.m.

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