This article is part of our series previewing 2018 local elections.
In 2017, California adopted Senate Bill 54, a “sanctuary state” bill that limits contact between local law enforcement and federal authorities. The Orange County sheriff’s office has organized against the law ever since. It pushed the county to join the Trump administration’s lawsuit, and it now posts the dates at which people are scheduled to be released from jail online; the idea is to circumvent the new limits on communicating with ICE by making information altogether public. In addition, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has sought to expand the number of immigrants that the county holds for ICE. Immigrants are detained in terrible conditions in Orange County, according to a 2017 Department of Homeland Security report on the Theo Lacy Facility, which features 24-hour solitary confinement, and unsanitary food and showers.
Hutchens is not seeking re-election this year and immigrant rights’ advocates see the open race as an opening for change. Jonathan Paik, the director of KRC in Action, sees it as an opportunity to elect a sheriff who is not “actively trying to find workarounds to target immigrant communities” and “does not partner with the Trump administration.”
The candidates are Undersheriff Don Barnes and Duke Nguyen. (The ballot does not include party IDs, but Barnes is a Republican and Nguyen a Democrat.)
Barnes, who has worked closely with Hutchens, is running as a dam against California’s reform efforts. Asked what changes he would push for as sheriff, he responded that he would “speak out against misguided criminal justice reforms and advocate in Sacramento for their repeal.” He has championed opposition to SB 54 and he says he would continue posting release dates because he views limits on immigration enforcement as threats to public safety. He said during a debate that assisting ICE is a matter of targeting “high-level criminals.” But Orange County has alerted ICE of a broad range of people; a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office told the Washington Post in March that they would even make public the release dates of people whose charges have been dropped. “They use racially coded language to go after the immigrant community,” Roberto Herrera, the community engagement coordinator at Resilience Orange County, told me of the sheriff’s office. “They paintbrush the immigrant community as criminals as a whole.”
Nguyen, who came to the United States as a refugee in 1981, says that he would end the policy of posting release dates online. He argues that cooperating with ICE can be valuable in targeting “violent folk,” but that it would take a court order for him to honor an ICE “detainer” request. “I have no way to check on the status of a person, and I’m not going to hold that person at will for some sort of federal request,” he said at a public forum. Nguyen has focused his campaign on changing approaches to homelessness by resisting its criminalization and by urging Orange County to spend $700 million on a program to alleviate homelessness.
The sheriff’s office was rocked by numerous scandals, most recently reports of widespread misconduct in how deputies use jail informants, and the discovery that the county’s jail telephone contractor was recording conversations between detainees and their attorneys and allegations that the sheriff knew about this. Barnes supports keeping the same telephone contractor.
Orange County’s politics have been shifting, and local advocates speak of an intense mobilization around issues relating to immigration. “No matter the result of the future elections, there is an awoken giant that is really that is willing to exercise that power,” Herrera said.
Update: Don Barnes won the sheriff’s election in Orange County on Nov. 6, 2018.