For years, Democrats have dreamed of turning Orange County, the birthplace of Richard Nixon, blue. Or at least some shade of purple.
The county — once such a GOP stronghold that Ronald Reagan dubbed it the place where “all the good Republicans go to die” — is changing demographically and, therefore, politically.
Still, Orange County proved again over the last few weeks that its conservative side is alive and well, especially when it comes to illegal immigration. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors added a powerful voice to a growing backlash against California’s pro-immigrant policies when it voted to fight the state’s so-called sanctuary laws.
In doing so, the county has become an epicenter of the resistance to the anti-Trump movement that has dominated left-leaning California politics since the president took office. The stance against efforts to protect people in this country illegally comes a generation after Orange County became the birthplace of Proposition 187, the divisive 1994 ballot measure meant to cut public benefits — such as schooling and healthcare — for such residents.
“There’s no question that the demographics and politics of Orange County are changing,” said Dan Schnur, a political communications professor at USC. “But there’s an important difference between changing and changed. … A [place] of more than 3 million people doesn’t come with an on-off switch.”
Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange, agreed, adding that the suburban region is slowly changing as the “old white dudes” are being replaced by “far more tolerant young people and Latinos.”
“It’s no doubt that Orange County is no longer a red county … it’s violet,” he added.
The all-Republican Board of Supervisors voted to try to join the Trump administration’s federal lawsuit against California over its immigration laws, including Senate Bill 54, the landmark “sanctuary state” law that prohibits local law enforcement in many cases from alerting immigration agents when detainees who may be subject to deportation are released from custody.
“I’m a legal immigrant,” said Supervisor Michelle Steel, who is Korean American. “We are not talking here about law-abiding immigrants but criminal aliens. SB 54 is totally unconstitutional.”
Supervisor Shawn Nelson said the county is “not going rogue” but instead going before the court “so they see it our way.” Law enforcement officials, he said, should not be put into situations where “talking to another law enforcement agency simply … puts them in violation of the law.”
The Trump administration has sued California in an effort to invalidate three state immigration laws that it says violate the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which gives federal law precedence over state measures.
The board, which voted in closed session, will direct the county’s attorney to petition to become plaintiffs in the federal case. (Of the five-person board, Supervisor Todd Spitzer was not in the closed session but later voted in support of taking the action; Supervisor Andrew Do was out of town.)
The supervisors also voted during the public meeting to formally condemn SB54, calling it unconstitutional.
Elected leaders in tiny Los Alamitos voted last week to attempt to exempt their city from SB 54. Yorba Linda voted to send a supporting amicus brief to the federal lawsuit. Other cities in the county, including Buena Park, Huntington Beach and Mission Viejo may follow suit.
“California has decided to poke the president and his administration in the eye, and I’d rather they just not involve us,” Nelson said in an interview Tuesday on “Fox and Friends.”
The issue drew dozens of people to the supervisors’ meeting in Santa Ana on Tuesday, including many anti-illegal immigration activists who live outside the county.
During public comments, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), a longtime immigration-enforcement hawk, urged the supervisors to take a stand against California.
“By making us a sanctuary city and sanctuary state, we are doing nothing more than attracting millions of more people to come to this country,” he said.
Skye Wagoner, 21, of Huntington Beach, said she has “seen firsthand the struggles of people who are here without legal status.”
“Sanctuary cities promote safety by allowing undocumented immigrants to work with law enforcement when crime needs to be reported,” she said. “O.C. needs to continue to be a sanctuary.”
Although the county’s demographics have been shifting, the composition of local elected boards is usually a lagging indicator of change and often takes a generation or more to become more representative of a growing immigrant population, Schnur said. The Board of Supervisors, for example, has five Republicans, none of whom is Latino.
The gap between Republicans and Democrats in the county has been narrowing for years. In the mid-1990s, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 52% to 32%. Now, of the county’s roughly 1.5 million active voters, about 37% are Republicans and 34% are Democrats.
Immigration has long been a hot topic here. In 1988, voters at Santa Ana polling locations were greeted by uniformed guards holding signs that said, in Spanish and English, “Non-Citizens Can’t Vote.” The incident prompted allegations of voter intimidation and racism and spawned a lawsuit and a settlement.
On Tuesday, state Sen. Kevin de León, who wrote SB 54, said in a statement that “the county that gave us Prop. 187 more than two decades ago is at it again with another unconstitutional attack on our immigrant communities.”
“This kind of obsessive immigrant bashing is embarrassing to the county and its residents, and seems designed to court the approval of a racist president and his cronies,” he wrote.
In a related move, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens this week made the release dates of jail inmates — including those in the country illegally — publicly available online.
From Jan. 1 to March 19, the Sheriff's Department released 172 inmates who were in the country illegally into the community because state law prohibited them from notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Carrie Braun, a department spokeswoman.
It's unclear whether any of those people — some of whom were charged with domestic violence, burglary and criminal threats, and convicted of driving under the influence — have gone on to commit other crimes, said Raymond Grangoff, government relations manager of the agency.
"ICE is going out and actively looking for them," Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes said. "It would be easier for everyone involved and safer for the community and law enforcement if they were relinquished to the custody of ICE rather than returned to the community."
ICE Deputy Director Tom Homan praised the sheriff and her decision on Tuesday.
“She and her department have been a valued partner of ICE for many years,” Homan said in a statement. “Despite the severe challenges that SB 54 creates for ICE, we continue to seek cooperation with all sheriffs and local law enforcement who, like Sheriff Hutchens, share our goal of protecting public safety and ensuring that criminal aliens aren’t released back onto the streets.”
Gov. Jerry Brown’s office said it did not take issue with Hutchens’ decision.