The American Civil Liberties Union plans to open an office in Bakersfield soon that will focus on immigrant rights and policing, moving the famously liberal organization from a remote monitoring stance to up-close vigilance in Kern County.
An ACLU staff lawyer is scheduled to begin work Oct. 1 at an undisclosed office address in the city. The plan is to eventually staff the office with four lawyers. Already the organization has an organizer operating in the city.
"We've seen tremendous value in having our advocates on the ground in the community," said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. "We find that their ability to hear and learn what's going on is really magnified if they're there rather than us trying to serve a community from a distance."
Plans for a Bakersfield office reflect the ACLU's concern with allegations local law enforcement oversteps legal bounds and that immigrants require greater legal protection.
Villagra noted the ACLU has in recent years become involved in Kern County cases alleging improper use of checkpoints to impound immigrants' vehicles, federal raids at or near courthouses and deaths at the hands of law enforcement.
He pointed to Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood's statements earlier this year critical of the California Values Act, the so-called sanctuary law that prohibits local and state law enforcement agencies from using their resources to investigate or arrest people in support of federal immigration enforcement. Villagra said the ACLU wants to ensure the sheriff's office complies with the 2017 law.
The ACLU's Northern California affiliate maintains an office in Fresno. The Bakersfield office will be affiliated with the organization's Southern California branch, which since 2005 has expanded from Los Angeles to offices in Orange County to San Bernardino.