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How A Tiny City In Southeast L.A. County Became An Unlikely Battleground In The Sanctuary City Debate

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Update: On June 26th, an anti-sanctuary city protester was arrested for brandishing a gun after a Cudahy City Council meeting. Read our coverage of the incident here.

Ten miles southeast of downtown, Cudahy has become an unlikely ground zero in the debate over "sanctuary cities," attracting both pro-Trump, nationalist groups and the requisite counter-protesters to the tiny, working-class town. Along with a number of other small, largely Latino cities in southeast Los Angeles County, Cudahy voted to officially designate itself a "sanctuary city" several years ago, long before the term became the topic of executive orders—or a household word in an increasingly contentious immigration debate.

Cudahy's sanctuary designation is largely symbolic. Despite its ubiquity, "sanctuary city" still has no precise legal definition, and Cudahy has no say over how or when the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (which polices the city) chooses to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. But the sanctuary designation has provoked protests and ire from anti-immigration groups since it passed in 2015. According to a city clerk, it's been roughly two years since Cudahy was last able to hold their city council meetings at City Hall. So many outsiders started showing up that they could no longer fit in City Hall chambers, and the meetings had to be relocated to the common room at a nearby park. Locals say the tensions over Cudahy's sanctuary designation have increased exponentially since President Trump took office in January.

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"They've been driving in to our council meetings to just yell and scream at our supporters and our communities with signs saying 'Call ICE,' or 'Let's deport everybody in this room,'" Cudahy Mayor Chris Garcia told LAist. "It's very degrading and dehumanizing for our community and our residents."

Now, American Children First, a self-described "American nationalist" group, has announced plans to make Cudahy the initial target of a sweeping campaign to try and defund sanctuary cities. Despite not being on the official agenda, debate over the group's proposal dominated Cudahy's City Council meeting on Monday night, with non-residents representing both pro-Trump and immigrant rights groups packing the meeting and leading protests outside.

American Children First's "Operation Defund Sanctuary Cities" aims to use local ballot measures to eliminate revenue sources for self-designated sanctuary cities. Cudahy, according to LA Weekly, is one of 150 cities across California that draws a significant portion of its general fund budget from a tax on utility bills—this "utility user tax," as its known, generates slightly more than $1 million a year, or approximately 13.5% of the city's total general fund revenue.

ACF's plan takes advantage of a little-known provision of a taxpayer protection measure that California residents passed in 1996. Proposition 218, as it was known, significantly lowered the requirements for how many signatures are needed to put certain tax-related initiatives on local ballots; under the new-ish rules, proponents need only gather signatures equivalent to 5% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. In tiny Cudahy, where only 1,238 residents voted in the 2014 election, a mere 62 signatures are required to put the anti-sanctuary city measure on the ballot.

American Children First has not minced words about their intent with the proposal. "I want to punish a sanctuary city for what I view as supporting lawlessness and supporting values and policy that are completely contradictory to my position," Joseph Turner, the group's founder, told LAist. "My ultimate goal would be to have them lose this revenue stream," Turner, who lives in Torrance, said, explaining that he hopes to try and replicate the plan in other municipalities.

"I've always been passionate about the idea of American exceptionalism, and I've always been an American nationalist," Turner said. "I believe that the United States is a beacon of salvation to mankind, and that the demise of the United States represents the demise of mankind. No society can allow unchecked mass migration or immigration into your country without assimilating them."

"These people despise immigrants so much that they're going out of their way to destroy programs for kids and seniors in Latino communities like ours," Cudahy Mayor Chris Garcia told LAist. "That's where the funding goes. It's been earmarked for decades," Garcia continued, characterizing ACF's plan as "a desperate attempt for attention."

"These people think they can just use our community as a political ground for them to make their political statements, and we're not going to allow that anymore," Garcia said.

Meanwhile, the protests and counter-protests have hampered the conduct of ordinary city business in Cudahy. "This is supposed to be a planning meeting, but they come and it turns into a circus," Edwina Quintana, a decades-long resident of Cudahy (her daughter grew up playing with Mayor Garcia) said during Monday night's meeting.

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"Before these groups started to come, you'd have maybe fifteen people at the most coming to a city council meeting. Meetings never got shut down," Cudahy native Alan Garcia (no relation to Chris), a 31-year-old production assistant and host of a podcast devoted to local politics, told LAist.

"I wish I could say that I was surprised, but there's a history in the Southeast of this happening," Cudahy resident Elizabeth Alcantar, who serves as vice president of the Southeast LA Democrats club, told LAist. "When Maywood declared itself a sanctuary city [in 2006], huge groups of literal Minutemen showed up in the city, really terrorizing the residents." The 23-year-old works as a local bike advocacy coordinator and moved to Cudahy from neighboring Huntington Park as a second grader. Like many residents of Cudahy, which is 96% Latino, Alcantar has her own immigrant lineage.

"Being from Cudahy, our stories are very similar," Alcantar said. "We pretty much all come from an immigrant background. Both of my parents immigrated from Mexico. Thankfully, they both have papers and we have the privilege of being able to stay in this country legally."

Alan Garcia, whose parents immigrated from Guatemala in the 1970s, has a similar origin story. "My family came to the United States with nothing in their pockets, now my parents are United States citizens. They own property. They've achieved the American dream," Garcia told LAist. "I think that a lot of people in Cudahy are motivated by the same things: they just want to survive. They left their country to survive."

Located along the 710 freeway in Southeast L.A. County, Cudahy is bordered by Bell, South Gate, Bell Gardens and Huntington Park. Despite being the second-smallest city in the county—it occupies a mere 1.2 square miles of land—Cudahy ranks as one of the most densely populated urban areas in the nation. The median age in the city is 27, and it still feels, according to Alcantar, like a small town. "Most of us went to the same high school, and if not, we probably still know each other," she said.

Like its neighboring southeastern cities, Cudahy's local government has been plagued by a number of corruption scandals, but recent elections have brought waves of change. Four out of the city's five elected officials are now in their twenties or early 30s and "very progressive," according to Mayor Chris Garcia, who is 30. "Growing up in Cudahy, maybe ten years ago, was rough, but ever since the corruption scandals were cleared up and we have the younger council members and the mayor on the dais, things have improved a lot," Alan Garcia, who plays in a Rage Against the Machine cover band when he's not documenting local affairs for his podcast, said.

The fifth member of Cudahy's city council, Jack Guerrero, is cut from decidedly different cloth than his millennial counterparts. Guerrero, who is 42, proudly attended the Trump inauguration, abstained from the sanctuary debate, and is blamed by many of his fellow Cudahy residents for welcoming (and even attracting) the presence of outside anti-immigrant groups to the city.

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Cudahy's City Attorney (center) sits behind Councilman Jack Guerrero (left) and Vice Mayor Christian Hernandez (right) during Monday's City Council meeting. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
"Everyone's been asking why Cudahy, right? Why on God's earth are they choosing Cudahy? Well, I want to remind people that we have a Donald Trump-loving Republican on our council who's just a loose cannon," Mayor Chris Garcia told LAist. Several activists also blamed Guerrero for the outsider presence in conversations with LAist, with some going so far as to suggest that Guerrero had even initially invited outspoken anti-immigration activist Arthur Schaper to Cudahy. The L.A. Times has characterized Schaper, who sat in the front row of Monday's City Council meeting draped in a Trump-Pence American flag and wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, as "the Trump backer leading the resistance to the resistance in California." Turner, who sat beside Schaper during Monday's meeting, told LAist that he himself has had "zero interaction" with Guerrero and "didn't know him personally." At one point during Monday's meeting, Guerrero alleged that he was being heckled by his dais seat mate, Cudahy Vice Mayor Christian Hernandez. "What I'll do is I'll stand over there and protect all of you," another city official announced, before moving a chair to sit directly behind both of the men.

Sixty individuals signed up to give public comment during Monday's meeting, and the tenor was often heated. Thirty-eight Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies were in attendance, according to ABC 7, and Mayor Chris Garcia frequently admonished the crowd to behave. Schaper and Turner brought printed-out copies of a "Sanctuary City Bingo" game they had created, which they passed out at the beginning of the meeting (squares included "Leftist says 'white privilege'," "Univision covers meeting," and "Beta cuck Jewish guy from HP shows up," among others) and several members of their contingent could be seen filling them out during the meeting.

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Click photo to enlarge. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)

The ACF-sponsored initiative to repeal the city's utility tax loomed large over the debate, though most commenters did not specifically mention it and instead addressed broader issues about the meaning of a "sanctuary city," and who, exactly, gets to call themselves an American.

Cudahy Deputy City Clerk Richard Iglasias told LAist that American Children First's initial filing for an anti-sanctuary-city measure had already been received and rejected by the City Attorney's office because it wasn't filed by a Cudahy resident, which local election law requires. However, according to Turner, he has already re-filed, this time with a Cudahy resident. According to LA Weekly, once Cudahy's City Attorney receives the filing, the office will have 15 days to qualify the measure. American Children First will then have 180 days to gather the 62 signatures necessary to put the measure on Cudahy ballots.

"I'm confident the residents of Cudahy will see through efforts by outsiders to overrule decisions made by the duly elected representatives of the city for the benefit of the people of the city," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, whose district includes Cudahy, told LAist. "Cudahy is a city welcoming of all residents and I will work to ensure bullying gimmicks won't change that."

But in Turner's eyes, he's already won—regardless of what happens at the polls. "The way I look at it as an activist, I've already recouped my investment. Everything else is pure gravy, in terms of my return on my project in Cudahy," he said.

"I've effectively used this initiative to get national attention," Turner said, adding that he made the front page of Breitbart and has been interviewed on conservative radio shows. "I've been able to use it to bolster the profile of the organization, in terms of public awareness and social media interaction."

"To me, it's a home run," he added. "It's a grand slam whether or not it even passes."