A self-identified “American Nationalist” group based in Torrance is spearheading an effort to defund sanctuary cities in California. Its first target is an incorporated area of southeast L.A. with one of the largest percentage of Latino residents in the county, many of whom are immigrants.

And some residents fear it could actually happen.

The group, American Children First, says its initiative in the city of Cudahy is part of a broader strategy — known as “Operation Defund Sanctuary Cities” — to use ballot measures to eliminate sources of revenue to cities throughout California that, like Cudahy, have declared themselves sanctuaries for residents who are in the country illegally.

In a statement emailed to the L.A. Weekly, Joseph Turner, the founder of American Children First, called the concept and existence of sanctuary cities “offensive to me as an American citizen.”

“It disgusts me that elected officials are willing to endanger the lives of American citizens by not cooperating with federal authorities,” Turner said. “I believe these elected officials are committing acts of treason and that they should be held criminally and civilly liable for the crimes these illegal aliens commit against Americans.”

Guillermo Torres, a senior organizer with Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice of Los Angeles who works with a coalition advocating for L.A. City Council to pass a sanctuary city ordinance, says American Children First's initiative is a long shot.

“I don't see why someone would take such an initiative in their own city to defund themselves,” Torres says.

But immigration rights advocate Silvia Merlos, who was raised in Cudahy, says the situation is urgent; the city's small size and the sympathetic ear of at least one city councilman make it a suitable site as a test-case for American Children First's strategy.

Merlos, whose mother is a Salvadoran immigrant, is among the Southeast L.A. residents who have formed an ad hoc group called the Defend Movement, which opposes American Children First and its plan. She says American Children First is one of several “ultra-patriot” groups active in the area, whose members have been arriving in large numbers to disrupt town halls and city council meetings in southeast L.A.

“We have people ready to defend our city and stand up against this group,” Merlos says. “We are a community definitely under attack right now.”

Cudahy, a tiny city nestled against the western shore of the L.A. River in southeast L.A., declared itself a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants a year ago. Cudahy is the second smallest city in L.A. County, with a population density that is one of the highest in the country — 24,000 residents live on the 1.2 square miles within the city limits. The population of Cudahy is 96 percent Latino, and the 2000 U.S. Census found it had the sixth highest percentage of Latino residents of any city or neighborhood in L.A. County.

Of the sanctuary city designation, Cudahy City Councilman Cristian Markovich told the San Diego Union-Tribune it was a largely symbolic and nonbinding gesture meant to encourage the city's large immigrant population to cooperate with the police without fear of being reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Cudahy is one of 150 cities in California that draw a significant portion of its general fund budget from a tax on the utility bills of their residents and businesses — revenue that American Children First seeks to eliminate as punishment for limiting the cooperation of local police with federal immigration enforcement.

In Cudahy, the tax on utility bills will generate slightly more than $1 million in revenue for Cudahy this year — an amount that is 13.5 percent of the city's total general fund revenue.

Turner, the founder of American Children First, says the tax is subject to voter-approved repeal under the provisions of Proposition 218, a constitutional amendment approved in 1996 giving residents the power to challenge certain revenue-raising measures of local government.

The Cudahy City Attorney's Office has 15 days to qualify the anti-sanctuary-city measure, then American Children First will have 180 days to gather the mere 62 signatures needed from Cudahy voters to place the repeal measure on the ballot.

Turner says he anticipates the grassroots campaign will resonate with working and lower class residents of Cudahy who struggle to make ends meet and who are receptive to calls for tax relief — whether or not they share the campaign's underlying animosity for sanctuary cities.

Turner's bio states that he was the founder of  Save Our State, an “anti-illegal immigration group,” and that he was the author of the City of San Bernardino Illegal Immigration Relief Act in 2005, a measure that would have barred landlords from renting to immigrants in the country illegally and prohibited business owners from receiving permits if they employed them. The measure failed when a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge ruled Turner did not collect enough signatures to qualify the measure for the city ballot.

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