LOS ANGELES—When Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell started speaking on an immigration panel here Wednesday night, seven audience members stood among the more than 200 people in the crowd and turned their backs to the stage. Minutes later, when he spoke again, 20 people stood to silently protest. By the third time, 30 individuals turned their backs to the sheriff, including a father carrying a toddler.
Sheriff McDonnell was speaking on a panel hosted by Zócalo Public Square, a local non-profit that organizes discussions on a variety of topics. The panel on Wednesday night explored the question, “What Does Trump Mean for Immigrant L.A.?”
Those protesting at the event said the sheriff facilitates deportations by cooperating with immigration officials. McDonnell runs the largest jail system in the nation in a region with the second-largest unauthorized immigrant population in the country. Advocates say he is currently the most prominent voice fighting a proposal they say is the single most important legislation introduced to curtail President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown in cities across the state.
Last year, the jail system McDonnell oversees transferred the custody of about 1,000 inmates to immigration agents, according to the Los Angeles Times.
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“Inviting the sheriff to an event about immigration is like inviting the KKK to an event about diversity and multiculturalism,” David Abud, an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), told Splinter after the panel. Abud’s organization helped organize protesters at the panel Wednesday night.
The activists also criticized Zócalo Public Square for organizing a panel to explore what Trump means for immigrants in L.A. and not including undocumented immigrants on the panel. Zócalo Public Square did not respond to Splinter’s requests asking about the immigration status of the panelists.
The panel was moderated by Jennifer Medina, a journalist with The New York Times, and included Cindy Carcamo, an immigration reporter for The Los Angeles Times; Roberto Suro, a University of Southern California researcher and founder of the Pew Hispanic Center; Stephen Cheung, a businessman who works in international trade and was born in Hong Kong; and McDonnell, who has been the county’s sheriff since 2014.
Zócalo Public Square’s website did, however, publish several essays penned by undocumented immigrants ahead of the event.
There was one man facing deportation who managed to speak during the Q&A session.
Phal Sok, 36, said he intended to challenge a panelist who he felt minimized anxiety in immigrant communities, but chose to keep his comments short after event organizers told him the panel was pressed for time.
“Nobody is saying life is normal. There’s more fear. There’s more apprehension,” Sok told Splinter after the panel. “We’re scrambling to do things that support the community.”
Sok was born in Thailand and came to the U.S. when he was just two months old. He is a legal permanent resident, but is now facing deportation due to an armed robbery charge from when he was a teenager.
“When we speak about violent offenders, I am one of them,” Sok said during his 28 seconds with the microphone, addressing the auditorium of roughly 200 people. He went on to tell the audience that since his release from prison in 2015, he has been volunteering and “doing everything great.”
But Sok doing “everything great” now doesn’t matter for the Trump administration. It didn’t matter for the Obama administration either. He is still what the government considers a violent offender and a priority for deportation back to the country he doesn’t know as home.
By the end of the hourlong panel, a woman who said she was a single mother making a living as a janitor walked up to McDonnell on stage and served him with a stack of papers. A small group of janitors and day laborers stood behind her while she served the sheriff with the lawsuit.
McDonnell opposes California Senate Bill 54, the legislation recognized as the “sanctuary state” bill. Two local groups are suing the county and sheriff for access to public records of any communication between the sheriff and federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), The White House, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
SB54 would prohibit all state and local law enforcement agencies and officers from using local resources to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes.
NDLON, along with the Service Employees International Union United Service Workers West, filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County and McDonnell on Wednesday night to compel him to produce records on “interactions with the Trump administration about SB54.” The group requested the records through a California Public Records Act request earlier this year, on March 20, 2017. But they decided to sue when the “county withheld responsive documents,” according to the lawsuit.
“The sheriff is repeating Trump administration talking points about SB54, and we want to know why,” said Chris Newman, the legal director with NDLON, the group who helped organized protests.
Comments made by McDonnell in recent months are in line with statements made by acting ICE Director Thomas Homan.
For instance, in a March 9, 2017 letter obtained by the LA Times, Sheriff McDonnell addressed the lead author of the bill, California State Senator Kevin de León, opposing the SB54. McDonnell wrote:
Currently, when an inmate being released is subject to an immigration enforcement action, they are apprehended by agents in a safe and controlled manner during the release process at a county jail. SB54 would not allow the safe transfer of custody, rather it would force immigration enforcement agents into our communities in order to search out and find the person they seek.
Then, three weeks later, Homan expressed similar ideas during a town hall with the sheriff in Sacramento, the state capital.
“If there’s someone we feel is a public safety threat, they’re in the country illegally, plus they committed a crime, I’m going to arrest that person,” Homan said. “We would like to do it in the security, the privacy and the safety of the county jail. That’s the best place to do that. But if we can’t do that and I have no cooperation with the sheriff, then we are forced to go to somebody’s home, to go to someone’s [place of] employment.”
NDLON sought public records in Sacramento and obtained an email showing Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones had asked Homan for guidance on changing the public perception of the bill.
“I really feel that there is a showdown coming between the federal government and California on many fronts, and truly believe we could together head off that showdown on his particular bill,” Jones wrote in the email.
In interviews with local radio stations, McDonnell has stated he has met with officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and with then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly “on a couple of occasions.”
Now, Newman says his organization just wants to review interactions with McDonell and federal officials.
“Sheriff Jim McDonnell is the most important sheriff in the country right now and he’s challenging the most important legislation that is designed to stop Trump’s racist deportation agenda,” Newman told Splinter.
The LA County Sheriff’s Office told Splinter they did not have a prepared statement in response to the lawsuit.