Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell was in the middle of a panel discussion called "Trump’s Impact on Immigrant LA" on Aug. 9 when a group that represents day laborers and a labor union served him with a lawsuit.
Lawyers for the SEIU and National Day Labor Organizing Network are suing the county and McDonnell to disclose records of his communication with the Trump administration about SB 54, California's so-called sanctuary state bill. Supporters say the bill offers protections to undocumented immigrants against the threat of deportation by the Trump administration. Sheriff McDonnell has been perhaps the bill's most prominent opponent.
Pablo Alvarado, the executive director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, was addressing McDonnell at the forum when the sheriff was served with the lawsuit: "We want you to answer those questions in court since you failed to respond to us, to our public record request," Alvarado says in a video of the event. "So earlier today our lawyer filed the lawsuit, and we're serving you today."
Of the decision to serve the sheriff in a public setting, Alvarado says: "We thought it would send a very strong message of democracy and defiance, because that's how you keep your elected officials accountable, and we wanted for people to see that."
The panel discussion was hosted by the group Zócalo Public Square and moderated by Jennifer Medina, national correspondent for The New York Times. In addition to McDonnell, panelists included Los Angeles Times immigration reporter Cindy Carcamo, World Trade Center Los Angeles president Stephen Cheung and director of USC’s Tomás Rivera Policy Institute Roberto Suro.
Protesters held up a banner in the audience that read "McDonnell: Stop Doing Trump's Dirty Work." A small group in the roughly 200-person audience reportedly stood up and turned their backs to the stage when McDonnell spoke.
Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Department, declined to comment and referred L.A. Weekly to a video of McDonnell's statements after the panel discussion. In the video, McDonnell says: "We've been to Washington, we've talked about the issue of grant money [being withheld from so-called sanctuary cities], I've tried to be able to advocate for the fact that in Southern California we have, I think, a unique set of issues to deal with."
SB 54 would prohibit local law enforcement in California from informing federal immigration agents of the release dates of inmates and prohibit them from interviewing inmates inside jails. Most significantly, it would block the transfer of inmates to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) introduced SB 54, which passed the Senate and heads to the Assembly later this month.
In March, McDonnell — the head of the largest sheriff’s department and the biggest jail system in the country — first voiced opposition to the bill. The SEIU and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network then filed a request under the California Public Records Act seeking information about interactions between local sheriff's departments and the Trump administration with regard to lobbying against SB 54. Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones answered the request by providing a copy of an email showing he had asked acting ICE chief Thomas D. Homan for guidance on changing the public perception of the bill. McDonnell has not provided the information sought by the request.
Homan is the hardliner in charge of implementing the Trump administration's immigration policies. During a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing in June, Homan issued a stark warning to undocumented immigrants. “If you are in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried,” Homan said.
“No population is off the table,” Holman continued. “We’ll issue detainers to anybody in the country illegally. Our priorities are criminals first, but if you’re asking me if we are going to put detainers on people that have not been convicted of a crime, yes we will.”
The controversial policy has led to high-profile immigration cases like that of Rómulo Avelica González, a 26-year resident of Lincoln Heights arrested in February after he dropped one of his four daughters off at school.
Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, says McDonnell, like Sheriff Jones, has repeated talking points from the Trump administration to oppose SB 54 and that the purpose of the lawsuit is to find out why.
McDonnell has denied any allegiance to the Trump administration. “I am not a Trump guy. I am not an anti-Trump guy,” McDonnell told the Los Angeles Times in March. “I am just a cop. I am about protecting public safety."
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He also has said SB 54 would prevent the department from being able to hand over serious criminal offenders to ICE in the confines of the jail and has warned the bill could lead to retaliatory federal immigration raids and collateral arrests in immigrant communities. “If it eliminates the ability for ICE to be able to go into the jails to interview people that are ready for release, then the ICE agents will instead go into the community," McDonnell said in a May 23 interview on KPCC's Air Talk With Larry Mantle.
McDonnell has stated in radio interviews that he has met with Homan, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then–Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. "They were fruitful meetings," McDonnell told Mantle, "ones where we were able to talk very openly and plainly about what our challenges were, on how best to be able to tailor a response that meets the needs of us locally where we maintain the public trust."
At a press conference after the Zócalo panel discussion, Newman said McDonnell explained the department's failure to satisfy the records act request by describing his interactions with Trump officials as "informal."
"I’m not so sure that has anything to do with the legal standard about his obligation to provide information," Newman says.