BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood was hiking along the bluffs overlooking Bakersfield last year when he got a call from Gov. Jerry Brown.
“What are you trying to do to me?” the sheriff said Brown asked him.
“What are you trying to do to me?” Youngblood shot back.
A Republican in one of the reddest counties in the state, Youngblood had riled the Democratic governor when he announced that his department would defy the Trust Act, a law signed by Brown that restricts cooperation between local law enforcement officials and federal immigration agents.
The sheriff said the law put him in an impossible position, stuck between a federal program that relies on local jails to hold inmates who might be deportable and a state law that says inmates in jail for low-level crimes can’t be detained past their release dates.
That kind of stance has won him enemies in California’s immigrant rights movement and frequent comparisons to Joe Arpaio, the brash Arizona sheriff notorious for his workplace raids and ID checks.
Youngblood, 64, said he isn’t trying to make headlines. The Vietnam War veteran, who grew up working in the potato sheds around Bakersfield, said he’s happier hiking or riding his quarter horse, Sparky.
He lives in the same modest suburban neighborhood where he grew up, on Bakersfield’s now heavily Latino Eastside, and bristles at accusations that his policies encourage racial profiling, pointing out that a third of his deputies are Latino.
As he drove through town on a recent morning, past oil derricks, gated golf courses and strip malls lined with Mexican restaurants and carnicerias, Youngblood outlined his philosophy on immigration.
The federal government should start enforcing immigration laws - or write new ones, he said. He criticized President Barack Obama’s new deportation policies, which say most immigrants who have not committed serious crimes and have fewer than three minor crimes on their records should not be priorities for removal.
“You’re in this country illegally and we’re going to give you three bites of the apple? That’s three victims!” Youngblood said. “If you commit crimes, you oughta go.”
Youngblood’s defiant views have made him a rare voice of dissent in what has become the nation’s most welcoming state for people in the country illegally.
At a time when the Democratic-controlled Legislature has moved to allow such immigrants to drive, practice law and pay in-state college tuition - passing 26 immigrant-friendly laws last year alone, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures - Youngblood is an outlier.
He has largely refused to sign paperwork that immigrant crime victims need to apply for U visas, which allow some victims to stay in the country lawfully. As president of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, a national advocacy group, he has asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to share data with police so patrol officers can determine whether the person they stop may be in the country illegally.
Youngblood said his department began following the Trust Act last year on the advice of county attorneys. But he said he reserves the right to violate it.
“If ICE calls me and says, ‘You have someone there who has committed this heinous crime, and we really need you to hold them,’ I’m probably going to hold them,” he said.
Youngblood’s approach has been celebrated by those who believe, as he does, that Obama has been too lax on immigration enforcement.
And it has made him the target of activists who accuse him of setting his own immigration policy and of sowing fear among the estimated 66,000 immigrants in this rural county illegally.
“People are scared,” said Lorena Lara, an immigrant who was brought to the country illegally by her farmworker father and who now works for a community organizing group called Faith in Action Kern County. “They’re afraid to call the police because they think they might be deported.”
Immigrant advocates have been pushing for more protections and political representation in the Central Valley since Cesar Chavez launched the modern immigrant rights movement in the grape fields here half a century ago. In recent years, Kern County has been the scene of tense standoffs between protesters on opposing sides of the immigration debate, including a well-publicized shouting match outside the Bakersfield office of Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy in 2013.
The majority of Kern County residents are Latino, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that a Latino was elected to the Bakersfield City Council or the Kern County Board of Supervisors. (Political scientists point out that Latinos make up only about a third of registered voters and tend to turn out for elections at much lower rates than their white counterparts.)
Youngblood says his views are in line with the conservative voters who have put him in office three times since 2006. Their ideas about immigration and government couldn’t be more different than the electorate in Los Angeles, he added, even though Kern borders Los Angeles County.
“We are right-of-the-center on things,” he said. “I always say Kern is a county that ought to be in Arizona.”
Not far from Youngblood’s home, Jose and his wife live in a run-down gray bungalow. There’s a large portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the living room and a dirt yard out front. On a recent evening, as the couple cleaned up after a long day in the fields, a locomotive screeched on nearby tracks.
The couple came here from Mexico nine years ago to find work. Jose, who didn’t want to give his full name because he said he fears retaliation from the sheriff, now earns $9 an hour picking almonds and oranges. He made $9 a day as a bus driver back home.
Jose said that in 2013 he and his wife were attacked by armed robbers while they slept. The thieves stole everything of value and beat Jose for an hour, shattering his ribs.
Organizers with the United Farm Workers encouraged Jose to apply for a U visa, saying he had a slam-dunk case. The crime was sufficiently severe, they said, and he had cooperated with the sheriff’s deputies who responded to the 911 call.
To apply for the visa, immigrants must present a declaration from the law enforcement agency that investigated the crime saying that they were or will be helpful.
The Bakersfield Police Department, like most agencies in the nation, has a policy of signing all U visa declarations. Youngblood doesn’t.
Out of 160 requests between 2012 and 2014, he signed just four, according to Sheriff’s Department records.
“I think he has something personal against Latinos,” said Jose, who prays that Youngblood “will find it in his heart to reconsider.”
“We are at his mercy,” he said.
Youngblood said he hasn’t signed most declarations because he doesn’t believe in the premise of the law.
“If you have a system that rewards you for being a victim, it’s subject to abuse,” he said.
The sheriff’s stance has won him supporters, such as Ellen Fluhart, 70, a retired rancher who lives in the northeastern part of the county. She said Youngblood’s decision not to sign U visa petitions “is his prerogative.”
Fluhart said Youngblood’s views are refreshing in a state where politicians have passed bills that she says encourage unlawful immigration.
“They broke the law,” Fluhart said. “They shouldn’t be rewarded.”
Tensions between law enforcement and immigrant laborers in this community go back decades, said Gonzalo Santos, a sociologist at Cal State Bakersfield. In the 1930s, sheriff’s officials deputized farm owners so they could use their badges to shut down labor protests, Santos said. Some farmworkers were killed.
Now the department is intervening in immigration matters, said Santos, who called Youngblood “a rogue sheriff.”
Youngblood argues that Brown and the Legislature were interfering when they passed the Trust Act. Conflicting state and federal mandates put sheriffs like him “in the crosshairs,” he said.
“It’s unfair, because the law is so unclear,” Youngblood said. “Really what we’re looking for is clear law, clear direction.”
Despite his strong views, he insists he isn’t an ideologue.
Inside his wood-paneled office at sheriff’s headquarters, he keeps a portrait of former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger next to photos of meetings he had with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
A framed picture of his horse hangs above the electric fireplace, and several pictures of his friend, Bakersfield native Merle Haggard, are prominently placed on a chest.
“If everybody thought the same, this would be a pretty boring place,” Youngblood said. “This is where I learned my behaviors and my thoughts and my beliefs. None of which make me right.”