At a time when communities across the nation are considering efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, one small city south of downtown Los Angeles is charting a different course.
In Maywood, where 96% of the residents are Latino, and more than half are foreign-born, the City Council has vowed to make the municipality a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants, and over the last few months it has set out to prove it.
First, the city eliminated the Police Department’s traffic division after complaints that officers unfairly targeted illegal immigrants. Then it made it much more difficult for police to tow cars whose owners didn’t have driver’s licenses, a practice that affected mostly undocumented people who could not obtain licenses.
In January, the City Council passed a resolution opposing a proposed federal law that would criminalize illegal immigration and make local police departments enforce immigration law. Now, some in the community are pushing to rename one of the city’s elementary schools after former Mexican President Benito Juarez and debating measures to improve the lives of illegal immigrants.
Maywood leaders say they hope their actions will serve as a counterpoint to other cities, such as Costa Mesa in Orange County, that have moved forward with crackdowns on illegal immigrants and groups like the Minutemen border patrols.
“You just couldn’t keep quiet. I think we needed to amplify the debate by saying that no human being is illegal,” said Councilman Felipe Aguirre, 53. “These people are here . . . making your clothes, shining your shoes and taking care of your kids. And now you want to develop this hypocritical policy?”
But Maywood’s actions have made the town a lightning rod for criticism on conservative radio shows and websites. On KFI’s “John and Ken Show,” the host blasted Mayor Thomas Martin for making the city a “magnet for illegal immigration.”
Even within the city, the stance is controversial. Longtime residents believe the City Council has gone too far and is embracing lawlessness. They also question whether Maywood can handle more illegal immigrants.
“I’m afraid we’re testing the limits of the law, and that’s dangerous,” said longtime resident J. Luis Ceballos, 52. “I think there is a danger of people thinking that they can do whatever they want.”
“Many people who came here a long time ago feel that they had to sacrifice a lot more and do with a lot less than people who come to the country now,” Ceballos said.
This discord was evident at a recent City Council meeting. On one side sat a group of newer immigrants who addressed the council in Spanish. On the other side sat a few of the city’s longtime Anglo residents and Latinos who spoke in English.
At one point, when Anglo resident Kathleen Larsen spoke out angrily against naming an elementary school after Juarez, the audience members sitting behind her applauded. Most of them were Latino, and many were immigrants.
Then Oscar Corona stood up and asked why the person who usually translates the meeting into Spanish wasn’t there. He accused Councilman Sam Peña of laughing at him and demanded that he speak to him in Spanish.
“Speak to me in Spanish, please,” the 44-year-old forklift operator said, his voice rising. “Speak to me in Spanish, Mr. Peña. You know how to speak it.”
Peña was part of the old guard who ran Maywood until last November’s election swept in the pro-immigrant-rights slate. Now he is in a minority of two on the five-member council.
For years under the previous majority, the city’s police set up sobriety checkpoints that began in the afternoon. But the roundups also nabbed many drivers who simply didn’t have licenses, most of them illegal immigrants.
The city had a 30-day car impound period, which resulted in large fines for the immigrants. The city stopped the checkpoints amid complaints, but many illegal immigrants were still being stopped and having their cars impounded because they had driven without licenses.
In many cities that might have been seen as normal, even expected. But in a city where so many residents were undocumented, the practice was controversial.
Aguirre, who runs immigration service center Comite Pro-Uno, became a major critic of the city. Activist groups and the St. Rose of Lima Church joined him in the fight.
Together they led opposition to the towing, saying that the city’s real motive was to raise money on the backs of its large illegal immigrant population.
“People felt like they were being persecuted,” said Father David Velazquez of St. Rose. “Hundreds of cars were being taken away.”
A coalition formed that essentially supported a slate of candidates, including Aguirre. They won in the November election, in which the city’s treatment of immigrants was a major issue.