The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to file a court brief siding with the federal government in its lawsuit against California's so-called sanctuary state law.
With the vote, San Diego County became California's most populous county to rebuke state policies aimed at protecting some immigrants from deportation. The sanctuary state law, SB 54, limits cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
San Diego County's approach differs from that of Orange County supervisors, who voted last month to join the suit. Instead, the San Diego County attorney will draft an amicus brief in support of the case, which will allow officials to offer their opinion without actually becoming involved in the courtroom fight.
However, the deadline to file such a brief has passed, meaning the earliest opportunity that San Diego County will have to weigh in will be if and when a decision in this case is appealed by the losing party to a higher court.
"Public safety is our number one priority," Supervisor Kristin Gaspar said. "Here in San Diego it's important to note how our law enforcement's hands are being tied by SB 54."
Supervisor Dianne Jacob said she has seen a lot of changes along the 50-mile span of the U.S.-Mexico border in her district since she took office in the 1990s.
"We used to have people coming across our border who just wanted to work," she said. "That has changed over the years. It's changed to the extent where we have people on the terrorist watch list coming across the border."
She later clarified "she was told" of at least one person on a terrorist watch list crossing into the U.S. illegally but was unable to provide details of the case and did not specify who provided her with that information.
Under SB 54, state and local law enforcement are allowed to share with immigration authorities information about a person who has been charged with one of 800 crimes, including violent felonies, arson, domestic abuse and other felonies.
Supervisor Greg Cox was the lone dissenter in the 3-1 vote. Supervisor Ron Roberts was absent but said his colleagues should "stay out of it."
As evidence of the support among San Diegans for joining the lawsuit, Gaspar showed reporters the correspondence the supervisors received on the matter. Letters in favor of the county siding with the federal government towered over those written by those who supported sanctuary policies, she said.
But during Tuesday's public meeting, sanctuary state advocates outnumbered supporters of the lawsuit: 12 registered their support of President Trump's administration and 40 were against it, according to Gaspar.
"The California Values Act (SB 54) does indeed exemplify the values of California," the Rev. Beth Johnson of Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship told the supervisors. "It makes our communities safer by allowing law enforcement to do their jobs by making community members feel safe to report crimes."
Other supporters of the sanctuary law said it offers protections for immigrant families and helps keep the economy strong by recognizing the contributions of noncitizens, including their payment of taxes and their labor.
The threat of deportation causes negative mental health effects on immigrants and their families, said Janet Farrell of the San Diego Psychological Association.
"Deportation causes the breakup of families," she said. "The California sanctuary laws give some protection to the breakup of our immigrant families without compromising the safety of the general population."
Local governments in recent weeks have taken varying approaches to weighing in on the sanctuary state issue, from adopting resolutions to voting to file lawsuits themselves.
The city council in San Juan Capistrano, for instance, recently passed a resolution against SB 54. Resolutions are largely symbolic statements of a government's stance.
Aliso Viejo, Escondido and Mission Viejo are among the cities whose leaders have voted to file amicus briefs in support of the Trump administration's position. Such briefs are often submitted by those who have an interest in a court case but are not parties in the lawsuit.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted last month to join the lawsuit, while the Huntington Beach City Council voted recently to file its own suit.
The Los Alamitos City Council voted to "exempt" the city from the sanctuary law.
National attention turned to San Diego County as its leaders considered weighing in on the lawsuit.
The decision is likely to be a defining moment in the political career of Gaspar, who is running in a closely watched congressional race in a district that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election with just over 50 percent of the vote.
The Republican incumbent in the 49th District, Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, is not seeking re-election. In 2016, he narrowly defeated Democrat Doug Applegate, who is among the candidates facing off against Gaspar in the June primary.
In a statement opposed to the county's decision, state Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said the following:
“I’m disappointed in the Board majority for taking this misguided action. These bills were carefully crafted to be legal and constitutional, and to protect public safety. SB 54 does not shield violent and dangerous criminals from deportation, and it does not prevent federal immigration authorities from doing their job. We’ve worked hard to bring our undocumented immigrant communities out of the shadows and into society because research shows it makes our state safer and more prosperous for all. I firmly believe California is on the right side of history and I stand by our commitment to these laws.”