Trump Lawsuit Against California Brings Back Memories for Former Santa Ana Police Chief Ray Davis

Ray Davis, former Santa Ana Police Chief, 1973-1987. Illustration by Priscilla Moreno

Stories written about former Santa Ana Police Chief Ray Davis often start the same way. They mention the dichotomy between his large, gruff physical stature and his credentials and progressive ideology. They paint him as something of an intellectual linebacker. Tattooed and highly intelligent, Davis shook things up in the department. He greatly increased the number of unarmed officers on the street and was a leader behind community-policing strategies still in their infancy in the 1970s.

He was also known to pick fights with federal immigration officials by refusing to participate in sweeps of undocumented residents because he found it unlawful and counterproductive. This was unprecedented at the time. Though he was reviled by the feds, he was somewhat of a darling in the state, partially due to a nearly 20 percent crime reduction in 1976. He even managed to garner praise and a visit from then-first-term and now current governor of California Jerry Brown, who is now defending state immigration laws enacted in the conceptual legacy of Davis.

“The enforcement methods were totally wrong,” Davis said during a recent interview. “You would have people fleeing from the markets, places they were working or their homes, and while they were gone, people would steal their TV sets.” In 1982, a year before he officially announced his department’s noncompliance with what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), it was estimated there was anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 undocumented residents in the city of Santa Ana, roughly 32 percent of the population (215,050 total at that time). For Davis, that was a very large constituency that needed to be accounted for and respected by law enforcement. “It is important for a police officer to be able to talk to a Hispanic person without a veil of fear,” he said.

To work with the immigrant community in Santa Ana, Davis hired the late Jose Vargas, who had come across the border from Mexico some 15 times himself. The onetime trash collector became a citizen and a police officer on the same day. Later, he served as the liaison officer for Hispanic affairs at the department. “His sole job was to move among the community and do anything that he could to build our relationship with the community,” Davis said. “He was very important. I was able to get him accepted as Police Officer of the Year from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It shocked people.”

Vargas took his mission to heart, said Rusty Kennedy, who worked with the OC Human Relations Commission for nearly 40 years. He recalled the story of a raid gone wrong: “Immigration picked up a juvenile,” Kennedy said. “The juvenile didn’t have any identification, so they deported him to Tijuana along with all the others. This kid was on his own in Tijuana, and he was an American from a Latino family. Jose Vargas called the police chief in Tijuana, who he had a relationship with at the time, and alerted him. They found the kid. Vargas drove to Tijuana, picked him up and brought him back to Santa Ana.” 

The reforms pushed by Davis and his advocates did not come easily, especially at first. It was a constant battle with the INS. “He has turned Santa Ana into the only city in the whole country that has its own immigration policy,” one agency official complained of Davis in a 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

That adversarial relationship is echoed in today’s battle between California and the Trump administration. Brown cut his teeth as governor in the 1970s in a similar political environment, taking the side of Davis and his supporters. According to an LA Times article from 1977, during a trip to Santa Ana to visit the police department, Brown went on a late-night ride-along, responding to a number of calls, including a loud party, a reported burglary in progress and many traffic stops. Brown remarked there appeared to be no racially oriented animosity, which pleased him.

On March 6, President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against the state of California over three new legislative measures that attempt to protect undocumented residents. Assembly Bills 450 and 103 and Senate Bill 54 act as the legal bulwark to bolster California’s status as a sanctuary state. Though these laws are on the books, federal agents in the Immigration Enforcement Agency (ICE) are still able to conduct raids in California. The state’s sanctuary status is largely to signal to immigrants and minorities that California is attempting to be more equitable and inclusive.

Going after a large progressive state with a proactive governor is all part of an aggressive anti-immigration-policy and public-relations push by the president’s administration. It is intended to strike fear into minority communities and send a message to politicians on the other side of the aisle that their state may be next. The backlash against Davis in the 1970s mirrors the sentiments heard from current Republicans. In the 1986 book The New Blue Line, then-INS Congressional and Public Affairs Director John Belluardo is quoted as saying, “Before criticizing the INS, people should ask how many jobs illegal aliens take away from U.S. Citizens. . . . They should also ask how much of a drain illegal aliens are on welfare, health care and comparable funds. . . . How many contribute to the crime rate?”

According to the DOJ’s lawsuit, “California has no authority to enforce laws that obstruct or otherwise conflict with, or discriminate against, federal immigration enforcement efforts.” The department finds AB 450, a.k.a. the Immigrant Worker Protection Act, passed on Oct. 5, 2017, problematic because it legally does not allow private employers to cooperate with ICE by entering a “non-public” place of business in order to conduct an inspection or raids of undocumented people without a warrant.

AB 103, or the Inspection and Review of Immigration Detention Facilities, also passed in 2017, requires that a representative from the state must inspect a facility that is going to be used as an immigration-dentition facility. This applies to any place used to hold people longer than 24 hours. The inspection must be completed by the California Attorney General or another designated individual and focus on health, safety, fire-preparedness, and type and availability of visitation. According to the DOJ lawsuit, there are currently three operating detention facilities specifically for immigration cases in the state, and the department finds these inspections to be a nuisance, arguing they are purely to obstruct immigration agents. 

Effective Jan. 1, SB 54, or the California Values Act, limits the potential for immigration officials to wait outside of California jails to detain and deport individuals by not allowing local and state officials to disclose the release dates for people who are leaving jail. It only allows local and state officials to transfer a person from their custody to that of the federal government if there is a warrant for that person’s arrest or if that person has committed a certain set of felonies or serious crimes. The DOJ lawsuit claims SB 54 specifically makes the seizures and detaining of undocumented residents more dangerous for federal law enforcement, the undocumented person and the people surrounding the situation. 

While Davis was unwilling to comment specifically about the DOJ’s current lawsuit against California, he did remark that he thinks the general situation surrounding immigration enforcement is different than when he was Santa Ana’s police chief. “We never had, back then, the degree of enforcement being the primary issue as you have today,” he said. Indeed, since the dissolution of the INS in 2003 and the formation of the more enforcement-oriented ICE, deportations of illegal immigrations, especially from Mexico and Central America, has soared under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The outcome of the lawsuit remains unclear, but with Brown more adversarial than ever, it is bound to be a fight unlike anything Davis experienced.

Adam J. Samaha is a writer and journalist living in Fullerton, California.

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