Capitol Alert

He’s out to make sanctuary cities pay – and he only needs 62 signatures to get started

A brief history of the sanctuary movement in the United States

Sanctuary cities have become a hot topic in recent months, but the modern movement began more than 30 years ago in Tucson, Arizona.
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Sanctuary cities have become a hot topic in recent months, but the modern movement began more than 30 years ago in Tucson, Arizona.

Joseph Turner has figured out a way to take out the two things he seems to hate above all else – sanctuary cities and taxes – in one fell swoop, no looking back.

And though he’s selling his idea as a tax relief effort for the low-income residents of the various cities he’s getting ready to target, he is happy to tell you that it’s really all about punishing them for protecting their undocumented immigrants.

“Sanctuary cities by definition allow lawlessness to take place,” said Turner, founder and executive director of the nationalist American Children First, which invites all those who agree with its masthead of unapologetic “American exceptionalism” to donate to its grass-roots campaigns. “Our politicians are importing millions of illegal aliens and refugees – many of whom do not share our American values and ethos. Many of whom come here simply to better their own lives without a care or thought toward making America better.”

His website features a list of goals, including ensuring that President Donald Trump’s promises made on the issues of “illegal immigration, border security and trade are kept.”

As of May 30, this mission includes cutting the tax bases of several small cities, starting with Cudahy, a 1.2-square-mile sliver of southeast Los Angeles County.

To that end, he’s pressing to put an initiative on the next citywide ballot – one that would repeal the city’s utility user tax, effectively stripping Cudahy of 13.5 percent of its yearly revenue. That’s about $1 million.

Turner plans to pursue the measure unless and until the city changes its sanctuary status. The possibility of lost funding is not a threat, he says, but a promise.

“I feel like the community is receptive to the idea of lowering taxes,” Turner said, referring to a March vote that struck down a parcel tax proposal in the city and re-elected conservative Councilman Jack Guerrero to the Cudahy City Council. “It’s a lower working class community who is struggling to make ends meet ...”

Cudahy, population 24,000, is one of some 150 cities in California that rely heavily on funds gathered by taxing the utility bills of their residents and businesses. Its residents pay an estimated $181.77 per household – $44.22 for single residents – each year for services that include park development, youth and mental health programs, and fire and police protection.

“I doubt he’ll be successful,” said city spokesman Robert Alaniz, “but if he were, the folks who would suffer would be not only the folks he intends to hurt – which are the people who may be here on undocumented status – but also legal residents who live in these cities as part of a working class community. Whether the intent is there or not, that’s who would be hurt by a successful movement to go after utility taxes.”

Despite the resistance he’s faced from the City Council and local activists, Turner doesn’t think he’ll have any trouble getting the proposal on the ballot. He only needs 62 signatures on his petition.

Sanctuary cities by definition allow lawlessness to take place.

American Children First founder Joseph Turner

City leaders, however, point out that Turner is still politically outnumbered in Cudahy, where 331 of 4,443 voters turned out for Trump in the November election.

“Given the 96 percent Latino population makeup of our city and the xenophobic agenda of Mr. Turner, I find it hard to believe that many of our residents would support his measure,” said Christian Hernandez, vice mayor of Cudahy. “It is ultimately designed to eliminate funding for critical city services that protect and improve the quality of life for all our residents.”

Turner’s proposal comes after months of warnings from Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has sent notices to prominent cities insisting they let their local police officers cooperate with federal law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or lose crucial federal law enforcement funding.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice will stop awarding grants to sanctuary cities during a White House press briefing. "Unfortunately some states and cities have adopted policies designed to frustrate the enforc

In 2015, Cudahy joined a protracting list of municipalities around the country that called themselves “sanctuary cities,” places where local law enforcement could refuse to comply in the deportation of undocumented residents. During Trump’s first 100 days and following his initial executive orders on immigration enforcement, the agency says it made 37.6 percent more immigration-related arrests nationally than over the same period in 2016.

In response to the crackdown, a bill that would restrict state and local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with ICE and federal law enforcement is now moving through the California Legislature, championed by Sen. President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon.

Opponents of the measure, such as Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, have the same concerns as members of Turner’s camp – that Senate Bill 54 “is designed to make California a sanctuary for certain dangerous criminals,” and that the loss in federal funding might be too great a risk.

At a hearing on Senate Bill 54, which would prohibit California law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities, lawmakers on on Monday March 13, 2017 heard emotional testimony from both sides. Video courtesy of the Californi

But Hernandez, Cudahy’s vice mayor, calls pressures from the Trump administration and initiatives like Turner’s “nothing more than a desperate attempt to hurt people who don’t look like him or follow his mantra of prejudice and hate  It’s misguided, misdirected, and it’s based on hate.”

Still, Turner thinks he could succeed in a community like Cudahy, where voter turnout and community political involvement is low. The number of signatures he needs – 62 – is so low because the number is set at 5 percent of the voters who turned out in the last gubernatorial election. In Cudahy, only 1,238 people cast votes in November 2014.

He’s also encouraged by the addition to the City Council of a conservative like Guerrero – who has drawn activists against illegal immigration to the meetings – and a community distrust of a government that has been marked by corruption in the past. In 2013, a former mayor, city councilman and city manager were convicted for taking bribes.

“I’m sure they’d rather have more money in their pockets than going to a government that is corrupt, where you’ve had elected officials incarcerated ...,” Turner said.

All of those factors inspired Turner to target Cudahy first, and inspires some fear over the future of the city in its activists and council members.

Alan Garcia, community activist and 30-year Cudahy resident, campaigned hard against Guerrero’s re-election and has publicly spoken out against Trump.

“It was disturbing to me that (Guerrero) got re-elected,” he said, “and now I’m looking at this initiative and it’s difficult to say whether it has any legs or not because of how confused some of the residents seem to be about what’s going on. When it appears that somebody is going to try to save money in their pockets, of course they’re going to want to sign up for that.”

Guerrero also appeals to the larger Spanish-speaking population of Cudahy, some of whom Alaniz suspects do not understand the aims of the groups like Turner’s. Yet they’ve banded together to argue that corruption still afflicts the city and to support Turner’s initiative.

“I don’t know that many of those individuals who are Jack Guerrero’s supporters would support a retraction of the sanctuary status of the cities,” Alaniz said. “I’ve never heard any of those individuals come up and address the city’s status, but what I do hear is, ‘You guys are corrupt.’ He’s trying to link corruption with the sanctuary cities status and somehow allege that our council members must be corrupt because they’re protecting illegal immigrants.”

Guerrero, who abstained from the 2015 decision to label Cudahy a sanctuary city, has not come out in support or in opposition of Turner’s initiative, but said he regrets the city’s move: “It was like we put a banner in Cudahy that said ‘historically corrupt and home of undocumented immigrants.’ 

I am, as a resident, going to fight for this initiative not to pass. It has cruel intentions.

Cudahy businessman Edin Enamorado

Edin Enamorado, a local businessman, says he’s experienced the waves of change that have hit Cudahy over his 27 years as a resident. He says taxes are now going where they need to go and he vows to fight Turner’s initiative to the end.

“The city’s making progress,” Enamorado said. “We’re getting brand new street signs, repaved roads. We have a beautiful park and we’ve had one of the safest years in our history. I don’t see Turner and his people giving up, but I am, as a resident, going to fight for this initiative not to pass. It has cruel intentions.”

Turner won’t be giving up any time soon, either. On Monday, he filed his next initiative to cut funding from Huntington Park, a city that never declared itself a sanctuary city but has appointed two people without legal status to its city commission – a much greater offense to Turner. Repealing the utility user tax there would reduce the city’s general revenue fund by 23 percent, or by $6.25 million each year.

All he needs is 176 signatures to get it on their next citywide ballot.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:40 a.m. June 22, 2017 to correct the number of signatures needed to qualify a measure in Huntington Park and to remove a reference to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon championing Senate Bill 54.

Rennie Svirnovskiy: 916-321-1199, @RennieYS