Fresno County sheriff attended meeting to oppose sanctuary law. So did alleged hate group

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims was among the attendees at an invite-only meeting last year whose purpose was to discuss actions cops can take to oppose the state’s controversial sanctuary law, documents show.

The documents, obtained through a public records request made by the ACLU of California, showed other Valley sheriffs also were invited to attend the meeting.

Among the meeting’s speakers was a national field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-illegal immigration organization labeled as a “hate group” and “extremist group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The meeting was organized by the Fresno County Republican Party on May 7, according to a copy of the invitation.

According to the invite, attendees were informed about possible actions jurisdictions can take to oppose Senate Bill 54. The law limits local law enforcement cooperation with federal officials for immigration enforcement.

Actions discussed included passing local ordinances to not comply with the law, similar to what the city of Los Alamitos has done. Other suggestions included filing an amicus brief for current or future lawsuits opposing the law, like Orange County — or filing a lawsuit against the state, like Huntington Beach did.

Maria Romani, an immigrants’ rights policy attorney with the ACLU Foundations of California, said some of the records received through the organization’s records request confirm there was communication between FAIR and elected officials — which she said is concerning.

In regards to the May meeting, some sheriffs showed interest in attending to “strategize how to undermine the California Values Act (SB 54),” Romani said.

“It makes it clear that they care more about serving (President) Trump’s anti-immigration agenda than they care about serving their constituents,” she said.

News of the meeting comes amid recent scrutiny of SB 54 by law enforcement officials in the wake of violent crimes allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants. Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux in December spoke out bitterly against SB 54 after Junior “Gustavo” Garcia-Ruiz went on a rampage that killed one man and injured others.

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson was equally vehement in his opposition to SB 54 after Paulo Virgen Mendoza allegedly killed Newman Police Officer Ronil Singh on Dec. 26.

Sheriffs and law enforcement officials opposed to the law say it prevents them from properly communicating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to keep dangerous criminals off the streets. Proponents say SB 54 ensures that members of immigrant communities can feel safe to report crimes, without fear of their legal status being made known to ICE.

“In the Central Valley we have a pretty robust immigration population, and we believe everybody should be protected by our law enforcement,” Romani said


margaret mims
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims speaks during the funeral for fallen officer Sgt. Rod Lucas at People’s Church Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. CRAIG KOHLRUSS/THE FRESNO BEE CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee file

Invite included other Valley sheriffs

Mims’ opposition to SB 54 is no secret, as she appeared at a roundtable last year with President Donald Trump, speaking out against the law.

An internal email shows Mims sent the meeting invitation to Kings County Sheriff David Robinson, Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke and Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood on May 2, 2018.

“FYI — you are invited,” she wrote.

It’s not clear which sheriffs on the invite list, other than Mims, actually attended.

Warnke said through a spokesperson he had no knowledge of the meeting and didn’t go. Boudreaux didn’t attend the meeting, said Tulare County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Ashley Ritchie.

Varney didn’t return calls seeking comment, though in the chain email to invited sheriffs he indicated that he would attend. Robinson said he had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t make it.

Speakers at the meeting included Susan Tully, national field director for FAIR, and Shawn Steel, an attorney and former California Republican Party State chairman.

According to the SPLC’s website, the leaders of FAIR “have ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists and have made many racist statements. Its advertisements have been rejected because of racist content.”

Fred Vanderhoof, chairman for the Fresno County Republican Party, confirmed having organized the meeting. He said his group reached out to FAIR.

Vanderhoof said the meeting was for the speakers to present information about what jurisdictions in Southern California are doing in regard to SB 54.

He said it wasn’t the sheriffs who were invited, but rather, “other elected officials” from the Valley. “I can’t say,” he said when asked who the other elected officials included. An email shows he invited Mims.

Vanderhoof said he promised the participants he wouldn’t divulge who attended. Vanderhoof said he wanted elected officials to hear the speakers and have a discussion without the media being there. If members of the media came, he said, there “might be a lot of questions.”

“I wanted to keep it a private meeting,” he said.

Romani questioned having a private meeting attended by elected officials. “It’s a little scary that there’s no transparency,” she said.

Kevin de Leon, former California senator and author of SB 54, said the May meeting was further evidence the Republican Party and sheriffs have “politicized the issue of immigration.”

“Local political organizers are focused on electoral outcomes as opposed to public safety outcomes,” he added.

SB 54 presents numerous challenges, say sheriffs

Mims, who was asked to be interviewed for this story, submitted answers in writing.

“I was invited along with other elected officials to attend the meeting,” she said. “I was asked by Mr. Vanderhoof to invite Sheriffs from surrounding counties which I did via email.”

Mims said she knew FAIR was going to take part in the meeting, but she wasn’t aware it had been labeled as a hate group by the SPLC. When asked if she had known, if she would still have attended the meeting, Mims said, she would have to know the basis for such designation.

“Just because someone disagrees with an opinion doesn’t make somebody a hate group,” she said.

Mims said she considered legal options against SB 54, but noted it would be repetitive to other actions already taken.

She said no law should restrict communication between local and federal law enforcement. “(SB 54) interferes with our ability to work together to keep our communities safe,” she wrote. “My opinion is that the law needs to be repealed.”

Robinson, the Kings County sheriff, said SB 54 is “a very difficult law” for law enforcement. “It really protects the illegal element in our community — I’m not talking about the undocumented” but those with criminal histories.

Robinson said one of the biggest challenges for his office since SB 54 went into effect in 2018, is that it’s an unfunded mandate.

Local jurisdictions have to change policies, procedures and add staff time to be in compliance, he said. “Inmates are booked 24 hours a day,” he said. “It is very costly and not feasible for us at this time to vet all the crimes and criminal history of those persons whom ICE contacts us about.”

Inevitably, Robinson said, a person of interest to ICE will be released “back into the community to further inflict pain on victims due to the gaps which occur from not being able to properly evaluate wanted persons.”

For Mims, one of the main challenges with the law is that it sets a precedent.

“ICE is a law enforcement agency just like the DEA, ATF, and FBI, their areas of responsibility are different,” she said. “Who will the legislators choose next to restrict us from talking to that could compromise public safety?”

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Yesenia Amaro covers immigration and diverse communities for The Fresno Bee. She previously worked for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and the Las Vegas Review-Journal in Nevada. She recently received the 2018 Journalistic Integrity award from the CACJ. In 2015, she won the Outstanding Journalist of the Year Award from the Nevada Press Association, and also received the Community Service Award.