The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California celebrated the opening day of the new Kern County office Thursday morning with a press conference in front of the Liberty Bell in downtown Bakersfield.
The organization focuses on legal cases and advocacy regarding free speech, racial discrimination, gender equity, police practices, immigrants’ rights, education equity, reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights and more.
“Kern County residents value constitutional protections,” said staff attorney Jordan Wells, who previously worked in New York’s ACLU office. “The ACLU will work to protect and advance these cherished constitutional rights here in Kern County.”
“The people and the geography are new to me, but the issues are more common than you might expect,” he said.
One of the main focuses of the Kern County office is immigration, said Rosa Lopez, ACLU’s community engagement and policy advocate.
“Kern County has been under attack by the increase in ICE presence in our community,” she said. “ACLU is important to be here in Kern County — to protect immigrants’ rights.”
Kern County’s ACLU office will work with local organizations to launch a rapid response network to respond to ICE enforcement, Lopez said.
Another goal is to work with local law enforcement to provide transparency to the community.
“It is a widely acknowledged truth that local law enforcement agencies here in Kern County are in need of reform in order to provide the trust, accountability, transparency and safety that our community deserves,” Wells said.
“We will seek to work collaboratively with local law enforcement agencies in order to provide the needed reforms,” he continued. “But the ACLU will not hesitate to use more adversarial tools, including litigation, to defend the rights of all Kern County residents.”
According to Lopez, community members have expressed fear, concern and outrage over violations of their constitutional rights.
“This is an opportunity to hold departments and people accountable and transparent to the community,” she said. “I will be working with staff to help defend immigrants’ rights and push for police practices that are equitable and transparent to the community.”
Right now, the staff consists of just Lopez and Wells, but soon they will be joined by three more staff members: one more attorney, a paralegal and a community organizer.
The ACLU SoCal was founded in 1923, according to David Colker, ACLU SoCal’s press and communications strategist, and has offices in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Bernardino.
“It’s been 95 years since ACLU SoCal started,” said Colker. “It’s about time we get an office in Kern County.”