Alex Villanueva, a progressive Latino who vowed to “kick ICE out” of the nation’s largest jail system if elected, was sworn in as Los Angeles County’s new sheriff on Monday.
He stunned the local political establishment last month after winning 53% of the vote to defeat then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who became the first incumbent voted out of that office in more than a century. Villanueva had recently retired from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department with the rank of lieutenant after more than three decades of service.
A staunch supporter of California’s sanctuary state law, Villanueva appealed to African-Americans, Hispanics, labor unions, and registered Democrats in a deep-blue county. Together, they helped brand his nonpartisan opponent as a pro-Trump Republican who willfully collaborated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“We will not allow any divisive policies from outside Los Angeles or California to dictate the way we do our job here,” Villanueva told the crowd assembled at East L.A. College, where he took the oath of office. “Our hard-working immigrant families shouldn’t have to wonder if we are here to protect them or to deport them.”
Villanueva made several statements during the campaign that were perceived to be hardline stances against federal immigration authorities, but critics have accused him of sending mixed signals about cooperating with ICE.
The U.S. Air Force veteran promised “to create a very bright line between [the] department’s actions and ICE” and “actually physically kick ICE out of the county jails.”
However, he later clarified that inmates would still be transferred to ICE custody, as required by state law.
The Los Angeles Times reported:
Villanueva said he would not let ICE agents step inside the jails, but would “march [inmates] out ourselves and give them to ICE,” a comment some have interpreted as signifying an even more direct cooperation with immigration authorities.
Beat reporters who covered the race noted that Villanueva’s proposals “do not diverge entirely from the policies adopted by McDonnell” and that “the candidates’ differences on this issue were relatively minor in the end.”
Although Villanueva did not receive official endorsements from anti-ICE activist groups, an ACLU-led alliance indirectly promoted his candidacy by organizing community forums and encouraging strategic social media efforts.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who chairs two of the groups in that coalition, hosted a series of events leading up to the vote which she said were “partly about shaming ICE-loving incumbent L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell…” Cullors later referenced Villanueva’s “significant promises to community groups” and instructed her massive social media following “to make sure Alex will not collaborate with ICE.”
But just two weeks after the election, Villanueva confirmed that his administration would continue honoring ICE requests to detain certain inmates.
“You have very dangerous convicted felons. You’re gonna have rapists, sexually violent predators. I cannot release them into the public knowing that they’re eligible for deportation,” he said at an event on November 20.
Villanueva did make good on a campaign promise to “clean house,” relieving several of the department’s highest-ranking officials of duty. He takes over an agency with a $3 billion budget, that employs 16,000 people, and secures approximately 18,000 inmates daily. The L.A. County Sheriff also provides policing services to 42 contract cities including Compton, Malibu, and West Hollywood.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @Near_Chaos.